A Torch Running Pioneer

by Tessa Sechler

Many say that people who are runners like it because they get to be alone. Others say that they find friendship in the groups they run with. While she may not have known it at the time, Special Olympics Southern California athlete Laura Cook helped spread the tradition of one the most inclusive running groups there is today, the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

Laura joined SOSC in 1987 when she was 11 years old, and she still competes in track and field and bowling. It was about 10 years ago that she saw the Law Enforcement Torch Run banner hanging at the end of her street in San Gabriel Valley, and she asked her dad to take her to watch the officers run past her with what she would come to know is the Flame of Hope.

It was from that moment, her mother Penny Cook says, that Laura decided she wanted to be a part of the Torch Run. “The next year she went back and asked, ‘Can I run with you?’” Penny says about her daughter’s initial involvement with the run. “They said, ‘sure,’ and the following year she decided to ask other Special Olympics athletes to come out.”

The Torch Run Final Leg was started in 1981 by Chief Richard LaMunyon of the Wichita, Kansas Police Department. It was first brought to California in 1986, with the first Torch Run being held by the Los Angeles Police Department. It now serves as one of the largest fundraisers for SOSC and allows the officers to promote unity and respect for all.

Laura remembers the first time she approached the group of officers in her community 10 years ago and says that she wasn’t nervous, she just wanted to be included. She says that being a part of the run with the officers brings her joy, and she loves being able to hold the Flame of Hope alongside the officers.

“My first year I just went up there by myself,” she said. “And then I told my team about it, and I got my whole team to do it. They were all excited and we still do it today in San Gabriel Valley.”

While there were Special Olympics athletes participating in the Torch Run in other areas around the world, Laura was one of the first to form that bond in San Gabriel Valley. “She was the only one, and she just loved it and embraced it,” .

Laura’s interest in bringing these two groups together has since increased the level of inclusion in the community exponentially. “Her excitement was contagious to the other athletes,” Penny said. “It’s just grown bigger and bigger every year because the athletes talk to one another and say, ‘This is really fun,’ and they just love it.”

Every year over 1,200 officers run alongside SOSC athletes for nearly 900 miles through 200 Southern California communities. The  San Gabriel Valley Torch Run has grown so much that it has even inspired a local elementary school, La Primaria, to come out and support the athletes and law enforcement every year.

Laura’s runner spirit has not only lead athletes of all ability levels to this interaction with law enforcement, it has impacted their families as well.

“When you see that one officer staying with a walker or pushing a wheelchair because that athlete can’t run, it just brings tears to your eyes,” Penny said. “What our police officers are doing, it gives us a lot of pride that our kids are right alongside them. To see the looks on those parents’ faces when their athletes are running or walking with the officers, it’s just amazing.”

Laura says that even when she doesn’t compete at Summer Games, she will always keep participating in the Torch Run. “It’s something you can look forward to,” she says. “It makes me feel happy and healthier.”

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