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Special Olympics Pennsylvania's "Flame of Hope" begins 150-mile journey

13th annual Special Olympics Pennsylvania begins
13th annual Special Olympics Pennsylvania begins 02:15

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) -- Tuesday marks the start of the 13th annual Special Olympics Pennsylvania. The Flame of Hope began its 150-mile journey from PNC Park to State College.

Once the flame makes it to State College, there are three days of competition. Then in November, the torch moves on to Philly. The journey to State College is truly a team effort, involving law enforcement and Pennsylvania athletes.

You could hear the sirens and feel the spirit from PNC Park as the Be a Fan Torch Run took off for Special Olympics Pennsylvania. 

"It's more than a competition for them," said Matt Porter, Port Authority police chief and law enforcement torch run director. "It's a way for them to feel the inclusion that sometimes they don't always get."

"I've known a lot of these athletes for a number of years now and the personal growth I've seen them make over the years -- and I think a lot of that has to do with special Olympics," he said. 

To escort the flame and athletes, more than 300 law enforcement officers are joining the journey. Fifty-three law enforcement teams will take 3 to 4 mile segments of the long trip to State College.

Over nearly a decade, law enforcement events raised more than $15,000,000 to support Special Olympics Pennsylvania athletes and in turn, this torch run serves as a run in memory of fallen officers from across the state. 

It means a lot to competitors like Lydia Wert. "He's a good hero," she said to Chief Porter.

However, law enforcement considers athletes like her one their heroes for the Special Olympics games. This is Wert's 12th year competing, and she's determined to win -- "Because of the muscles," she said, while flexing. 

Even with her days of preparation and determination, she knows the games are about much more than competition.

"It means meeting new friends, because before Special Olympics, I did not have any friends, but now I have a lot of friends," said Wert.

Athletes build strength, public speaking and leadership skills during the competition too, and most importantly, they inspire.

"It gives people home and it inspires people to do things they never thought they could do," Special Olympics Pennsylvania board chair Shannon Barry said.

"It really increases the awareness of Special Olympics. It shows the community what we're all about and celebrating our athletes and their abilities," said Special Olympics Pennsylvania president Matt Aaron.

This 13th annual torch run was an uplifting one for athletes and law enforcement alike. 

"It just speaks volumes of the love that we have for this city, it doesn't get any better than this," Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey said.

The entire experience makes it easy to "Be a Fan" of Special Olympics Pennsylvania.

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