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The Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics has become more than just a fundraiser. It is a symbol of the bond between officers and athletes.

Special Olympics is the largest amateur sports organization in the world, with more than 4.2 million athletes with intellectual disabilities competing in 22 Olympic-style sports. In New York State, nearly 65,000 athletes compete, making the state program the largest in North America and by itself the sixth largest in the world.

This year, for the first time, the Special Olympic torch symbol will run through the Village of Lewiston. It is scheduled for 2 p.m. June 2.

The runs, which are open to the public, are not technically a race, but a chance to run in formation, talk with neighbors and meet some of the athletes. All the participants are asked to purchase a special $20 Torch Run T-shirt that denotes runners and helps raise money.

“Torch Run is more than just the actual run. It’s actually a movement. It started in 1981, when law enforcement officers of the time decided they wanted to raise funds and awareness for Special Olympics,” said State Police Capt. Steven Nigrelli, who has been involved with the group since 1994 and is on the international executive council for the run and is the director for the New York State Law Enforcement Torch Run.

“Carrying the torch into the Special Olympics is the backbone of law enforcement,” he said, “but it has also evolved into a fundraising mechanism for Special Olympics. Last year in New York State alone, law enforcement raised $1.7 million hosting various events, from polar plunges to rappelling off the walls of the casino to waiting tables at various restaurants for our annual ‘Law and Orders.’ Since 1981, law enforcement has raised about half a billion worldwide for Special Olympics. It’s a partnership, and it is our charity of choice to raise funds and awareness.”

The Torch Run has grown from a single 20-mile run to a series of 27 “legs” that involve participants all over Western New York, including runs in Olean, Amherst, Jamestown, Arcade, Fredonia, Niagara Falls, Hamburg, Buffalo, Williamsville and the Town of Tonawanda.

In Niagara County, the Torch Run for Special Olympics has been held for a number of years in Niagara Falls. It begins at noon June 2 on Goat Island and ends at Niagara University in Lewiston.

This year, for the first time, a second run will be held that day in Niagara County, the “Lewiston Leg,” which will begin at 2 p.m. and run from Niagara University through the Village of Lewiston and conclude at the Red Brick School, 145 N. Fourth St.

Nigrelli said the Torch Runs are still the most important thing the state police do because they raise awareness of the state Special Olympics Games, which are being held June 6 and 7 at the University at Buffalo.

He said in many cases the Torch Runs are community runs, pairing schoolchildren with special-education students.

“It is really a ‘feel good’ run where everybody comes together. We invited members of the community to join us,” Nigrelli said.

And he added, referring to the participating Special Olympics athletes, “We run as one, we talk. We experience their lives.”

Donations provide year-round sports training for athletes with intellectual disabilities, which costs approximately $500 per athlete, and provides for travel to state, national and world events.

The World Summer Games will be held in Los Angeles in 2015, with more than 7,000 Special Olympics athletes expected to compete in 21 Olympic-type sports.

It marks the first World Summer Games held in the U.S. in 16 years. The 2013 Winter Games were held in Pyeong Chang, Republic of Korea, and they will be in Austria in 2017.

Nigrelli said law enforcement and Special Olympics make for a perfect partnership.

“Law enforcement by nature protects those who can’t help themselves,” he said. “We are the original anti-bullying police, and what better organization to help Special Olympics and their athletes? These athletes are pure of heart, and you see the good side of our society.”

email: nfischer@buffnews.com