FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- More than 1,200 Special Olympics athletes descended on Fort Jackson last weekend for this year's South Carolina Special Olympics summer games.

Athletes making Friday's torch run from downtown Columbia were flanked by Soldiers from Fort
Jackson, as well as representatives of state and local law enforcement, as they made the seven-mile trek to the Solomon Center. It was the last leg of a long campaign, one that involved thousands of volunteers around the state working during the last year to raise money and awareness for the annual competition. The athletes spent the weekend on post, including overnight stays in the 2nd Battalion, 13th Infantry Division barracks, followed by breakfast in the unit's dining facility.

"I was just excited to interact with them and meet their families," said Sgt. Orion Larkin, of the 2nd Battalion, 13th Infantry Division, who spent Saturday morning helping to supervise the bowling competition at Ivy Lanes. "It's a rewarding experience, and I'm happy to be a part of it. We're here to support them."

The weekend games began with the traditionally raucous opening ceremony at the Solomon Center, which had Soldiers and athletes putting their enthusiasm on display. The crowd took turns chanting a pair of slogans: the Special Olympics motto, "Let me win but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt," and Fort Jackson's "Victory Starts Here."

"This is your weekend. Tomorrow is your day, and perhaps it's the biggest day of your life," Brig. Gen. Bryan Roberts, commanding general of Fort Jackson, told the athletes during Friday's opening ceremonies.

He encouraged them to do their best over the weekend.

"I want you to leave it all out there ... leave it on the field, leave it in the (bowling) alley, leave it in the pool and leave it on the floor," he said. "Don't take anything home with you. Leave it all here with your medals in hand."

The torch carried from downtown Columbia was used to light the Olympic flame outside the Solomon Center by Special Olympics athlete Brady Platt, a Lexington High School student. He and Kelsey Foster are both members of the school's Youth Activation Committee for the Special Olympics program, Project UNIFY.

The program is made up of young people from across the country who work together to provide advice and counsel on strategies designed to reach other youth, as well as engage in and promote Special Olympics activities in their home environments.

"Project UNIFY is a part of the Special Olympics that focuses on the inclusion and acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities," Foster said. "We want youth to become agents of change, fostering respect, dignity and advocacy for our athletes. We want our communities to be places where everyone feels valued and people are known for their abilities, not their disabilities."

In South Carolina, Project UNIFY has affected more than 70,000 youth, she said.

"We're in schools all over the state and continue to grow," she said."(Brady and I) first met in our UNIFY gym class in Lexington High School two years ago, and it's been so amazing to see him grow and become a leader. I'm so blessed to be able to call him my best friend."

The two travel around the country together to spread Project UNIFY's message, she said.

"Project UNIFY has changed our lives and opened so many new doors for us," she said. "We want everyone to get involved, to join a movement that's changing the world. Everyone can make a difference, and we're proof of that."

This year continues a long relationship between Fort Jackson and the Special Olympics, said Allen Amsler, South Carolina Special Olympics Board Chairman.

"It's a true pleasure to serve as a volunteer for Special Olympics," Amsler said. "Fort Jackson has hosted summer games for Special Olympics South Carolina for 45 years. We have over 1,000 athletes participating in summer games, and we are happy to be here."