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Monday, Mar. 11, 2013

Olathe sergeant carries Special Olympics torch for South Korean games

The Kansas City Star

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As a young Olathe police officer, Jeff Bragg joined the Kansas Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics not fully realizing what the program was about.

“It seemed like the right thing to do,” said Bragg, now a sergeant in the department. Besides, several of his fellow officers were using it as a way to raise a little bit of money for Special Olympics.

The more he got involved, the more he understood the important work that the run accomplished in raising awareness of Special Olympic programs.

In January, Bragg was among 130 officers from around the world who helped carry the Flame of Hope torch for the opening of the 2013 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Called the Final Leg, the law enforcement officers and Special Olympics athletes traveled in teams throughout South Korea promoting the Torch Run and Special Olympics programs.

“Korea has a Special Olympics program, but currently there isn’t a Law Enforcement Torch Run program there,” said Bragg, who represented the Kansas Law Enforcement Torch Program.

“Part of our mission was to inspire the Korean police officers to start this program over there, which I think we were very successful in doing,” he said.

Bragg, who has been with the Olathe Police Department for 19 years, has been involved with Torch Run for about 18 years. He started out on the local level and became involved as the department’s coordinator.

Now he’s involved at the state level and is a member of the executive council on the Kansas Law Enforcement Torch Run.

The Law Enforcement Torch Run started with a group of officers in Wichita in 1981. In 1984, Wichita Police Chief Richard LaMunyon presented the program to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which helped the Law Enforcement Torch Run program expand.

“That little flicker of light that started in Wichita, Kan., is a huge roaring flame across the world,” Bragg said. “We raised over $43 million last year around the world for those (Special Olympics) programs.”

Kansas hit a milestone last year, raising $500,000 for the first time, Bragg said.

The money helps give the Special Olympics athletes the opportunity to participate in events they might not otherwise be able to, Bragg said.

“Quite frankly, these individuals would never get the opportunity without Special Olympics to participate in anything like that,” Bragg said. “So they get to compete with and against people with their own disabilities.”

And while it’s a competition, it’s not about winning. The Special Olympics’ creed is: “Let me win, but if I cannot, let me be brave in the attempt.”

“They exhibit that all the time, which is so neat to see because you don’t see that in youth sports,” Bragg said. “You just don’t get to see that true spirit of competition anymore.”

Bragg left for South Korea on Jan. 20 and returned home Jan. 31.

The 130 officers were divided into two groups over two routes. Bragg’s group toured the western and northern parts of South Korea.

“We traveled for six days while there and we toured 22 cities,” Bragg said. “We went city to city carrying the torch.”

The groups were broken into five small teams consisting of nine officers and one athlete. Bragg’s team included marathon runner Andy Bryant from Washington state.

When the teams visited a city, they would run a mile or two into the town, have a ceremony and then run out of town carrying a torch.

“At the end of the days, Andy always wondered when we were going to go out and run,” Bragg said. “He wanted to run five or six miles every day.”

During the tour, Bragg said he carried the torch about five times. One memorable moment was running into Hwacheon, which was holding its annual Ice Festival.

“The river was frozen and they had this huge — probably two or three miles on the river — festival set up with sculptures, zip lines for the kids, big ice slides — all kinds of activities for families and kids,” he said.

The organizers took Bragg and an athlete in an ATV around the entire festival so they could display the torch.

The two routes converged on Pyeongchang for the opening ceremony. Once the cauldron was lighted, the job of the officers participating in the Final Leg was done.

“One of the little disappointing parts of it is that we didn’t get to spend as much time with the athletes and didn’t get to see any of the Winter Olympics Games,” Bragg said. “Our job was to carry the torch in and light the cauldron, then we all went home.”

The trip made Bragg realize just how big the Torch Run has become. It’s not just about Olathe or Kansas.

“It’s bigger than that,” he said. “This is a worldwide effort to globalize Special Olympics.”

To reach Robert A. Cronkleton, call 816-234-4261, email bcronkleton@kcstar.com or follow him on Twitter at @cronkb.

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