As the sun began to set outside the Solomon Center May 11, Tyler Chambers lit the Flame of Hope, bringing an end to the torch's 130-mile journey around the state and kicking off this year's Special Olympics games at Fort Jackson.
The torch's trek began the day before at Sullivan's Island, South Carolina. Escorted by members of area law enforcement and Special Olympics athletes, the torch was brought that evening to the steps of the S.C. Statehouse in downtown Columbia, then escorted a final time the following evening on a 7.5-mile run to Fort Jackson.
This year not only marked the 50th anniversary of South Carolina's Special Olympics games, but also the 50th anniversary of Fort Jackson's role as host for the annual event. And, while the
torch might have begun it's trip to Fort Jackson a day before this year's ceremonies, the hundreds of athletes taking part have been working year-round for their days in the spotlight.
"It takes months of practice," said Special Olympics volunteer Kimberly Linn, of Sumter, South Carolina. "They work hard -- we work all year round to get them prepared in our county. The
bowling team nine months out of twelve to get them ready."
Fort Jackson is always a welcoming host, she said, for the players and their competitions.
"They make them feel very special here," Linn said. "It's one of my favorite experiences. I foster a lot of kids and two of them are special."
Beth Toth, a volunteer from Clover, South Carolina, said the discipline of Fort Jackson's Soldiers helps to underscore one of the primary lessons of Special Olympics: respect.
"One of the things they're taught is that, when you're finished, you shake the hands of your opponent, you shake the hands of the coaches, and you shake the hands of the volunteers and tell
them 'thank you,'" she said. "Now that they're on Fort Jackson, they're ready to shake the hands of anyone in the military they see. We push respect, for the sports, for each other and for volunteers."
These are values that athletes will take with them to national games later this year in Seattle.
"Look at their abilities, not their disabilities," Toth said.
"They're just as capable as anybody else. They enjoy having fun and they enjoy competition. They're just like anyone else."