Special Olympian Lori “Action” Plaxen, 35, and her mother, Joyce Plaxen, 60, have been participating for decades in Montgomery County’s Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics.
When she was a baby, doctors said that Lori would never be able to walk. Now, she says, “I run!” and can power lift up to 90 pounds. She has won medals for track & field and powerlifting in the Special Olympics.
On Wednesday, the two set out on the Torch Run course at Rock Creek Regional Park amid dozens of county police officers, community members and other Special Olympians in matching green T-shirts.
Joyce Plaxen said she appreciates the effort that law enforcement put into the Special Olympics and that people should view police differently.
“[This event] enforces the mission of Special Olympics, and it’s helping the people with differing abilities [to know they] have people that they can count on and know police are good,” she said. “Don’t listen to the TV. Police are good.”
Founded in 1981, the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics is an international organization that brings law enforcement agencies all over the world together to promote acceptance of people with intellectual disabilities and celebrate diversity, according to its website.
Montgomery County Police Chief Marcus Jones relayed this aim at the torch run, saying it is one of many ways that the department encourages diversity and unity in the community it serves.
“It helps us to be able to establish those relationships. And once you have those relationships, you have better outcomes when you deal with people with developmental disabilities,” Jones said in an interview.
He said the run aligns with the county’s goal of diversifying its staff and involving more groups with the department. Another effort is the 30×30 plan with Democratic County Executive Marc Elrich that pledges to recruit women to make up 30% of the department’s staff by 2030.
“We just hope that, as we spread the word that these are the sorts of things that we’re involved in in our community outreach, that just will help to recruit—and also to help people better understand the police department,” Jones said.
Special Olympians David Godoy and Joe Wu attended the Hispanic Community Liaison Academy and the Montgomery County Police Citizens Academy, respectively. They said they valued the friendships they have made, both through the Special Olympics and events like the torch run.
“The best part [of the Special Olympics] is meeting friends,” Wu said.
Said Godoy: “We don’t feel like strangers. We have open arms, and we are always there to support each other. … And we will work as a team together to get things done.”
Godoy and Wu joined the several other Special Olympians, along with officers and community members in the run, either running, walking or biking along the main trail. Afterward, participants strolled over to a picnic area with food, drinks and music, courtesy of an officer serving as DJ for the day.
Montgomery County Police Officer Barbara Natoli, the Mid-West region coordinator for the Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Maryland, has been participating in the event since she joined the department in 1995 and has been planning it for about the last decade.
On Wednesday, she lit the torch.
“We are in a very community-oriented job, and what better way to welcome in the community than through the Special Olympics?” Natoli said “The power of an athlete is absolutely amazing. It’s more about their ability than their inability, and that’s why we’re here. These are champions right here. These are gold medalists right here.”
This was Natoli’s final year coordinating the event as she is retiring from the department. She received multiple rounds of applause Wednesday afternoon.
“I want to thank her for her service to the department and to the Special Olympics,” Jones said as he embraced Natoli.
At the start of the run, Natoli led the pack, carrying the torch, known as the Flame of Hope, a symbol for the Special Olympics games.
“The flame of hope is the perfect symbol. It symbolizes the best of giving our athletes the opportunity to train and compete in the sports they love, demonstrate what their full potential is, and help transform other people’s lives,” said Jim Schmutz, the president and CEO of Special Olympics Maryland.
The torch runs have been taking place throughout the state in recent weeks as each region does a leg of the torch run across Maryland. On Friday, Baltimore Police officers participated in a run at the Inner Harbor. On Tuesday, the Anne Arundel County Police Department completed their part of the run from Glen Burnie to Pasadena.
On June 23, all the Maryland law enforcement agencies will come together to carry the torch into the opening ceremony at the state’s summer Special Olympics in Towson.