By Melanie Barrios
If you’ve ever attended a Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC) or Law Enforcement Torch Run (LETR) event, you might have run into Kimberly Unland. It is hard not to recognize Unland in the crowd with her warm smile and contagious energy, she is the person you want in their corner if you’re competing at a big event, so there was no surprise when Upland was chosen to represent SOSC and LETR at the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin as a torch runner.
“I was thrilled. Very excited. Very honored. I serve alongside amazing law enforcement professionals throughout our footprint, and to be selected by those individuals is just a true honor to be able to represent Southern California and to run the torch, bringing awareness and show courage and support the diversity amongst all of us,” Unland proudly states.
From June 17–25, the World Games will bring together thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities to compete together in 26 sports. The Special Olympics ‘Flame of Hope’ will be lit on June 7 in Athens, Greece, and then travel through Germany before arriving ceremoniously at the Opening Ceremony.
Unland will be joined by 108 torch runners worldwide, 43 states, 18 countries, and 44 programs. One of her favorite activities to prepare for the big event is getting to know her fellow torch runners via Zoom and WhatsApp.
Unland’s work with Special Olympics began in the 90s as a deputy. She ran in the torch runs and participated in Tip-A-Cop, but she got more involved in 2010 when she participated in her first summer games, and she was able to experience what Special Olympics is about. Witnessing first-hand the hard work athletes put in for every competition, how parents beamed with pride watching their athletes compete, and coaches encouraging them, she knew she wanted to get more involved. As so many before her have stated, it only takes one Special Olympics event to get someone to come back for more.
Unland’s chief at the time was the director of the Torch Run for her local program and asked her if she was willing to lend more of her time to the programs. Unland was in the LETR council and served as state director for seven years until she retired in 2021.
Having retired from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department after 33 years, the former Captain has not slowed down on her work with Special Olympics. She is still on the executive council for LETR and is on SOSC’s Board of Directors. LETR and SOSC have a common goal: to put athletes first and to give them opportunities where they can thrive. This has kept Unland closely tied to Special Olympics!
Speaking on the comradery amongst law enforcement officers, Unland states, “you’re not going to find more dedicated, hardworking, loving officers who do what they can to support our athletes, Come up with crazy ideas to raise money…they’re working full-time jobs and have families, but just the commitment and time that they give to support Special Olympics and our athletes is pretty amazing.”
She recalls a moment at a swimming competition that touched her heart. She watched an athlete who is blind get rolled out in his wheelchair, get down in the deck, enter the water, and swim a 50-meter race. Just thinking of how terrifying that would have been for her to go into the water, being unable to kick, and to do so without vision stuck with her.
“That was amazing, and that’s what our athletes do. They don’t know what they can’t do; they only know what they can do, and they are so inspiring. That was a very powerful moment for me and just made me realize that there’s no excuses. If you wanted to do something and you put your mind to it, you can do that, and that’s what I get out of all these events.”
With the World Games coming up, there will be more opportunities for Unland to get inspired and create more beautiful memories. Her advice to athletes competing is to remember the Athlete’s Oath: “let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”
“Throughout my life and career, I’ve kept their athlete oath in mind when I’ve gone through some challenges and things I’m a little nervous about, so I encourage them to continue to state their athlete oath. I’m also encouraging them to just have fun. Enjoy meeting fellow athletes throughout the world. Enjoy being celebrated and loved on and just have a great time competing doing what they love to do.”
Also participating on the 2023 World Games Final Leg Team are Bill Proll, Retired Lieutenant of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, and Ian Parkinson, San Luis Obispo County Sheriff.
Bill Proll has dedicated 30 years to the LETR, running the torch annually and organizing 25+ Tip-a-Cop dinners. He currently serves as the County Co-Director. Bill’s organized Tip-a-Cop Dinners have raised over a million dollars. In 2009, he ran on the Final Leg for the World Winter Games in Idaho, and in 2015, 2017, and 2019, he was a team leader for the Final Leg during the Los Angeles, Austria, and Abu Dhabi World Games.
For nearly three decades, Ian Parkinson has actively engaged in the Torch Run, dedicating himself to its cause. From the inception of Tip-a-Cop events in his locality, Ian has been an enthusiastic participant, wholeheartedly supporting and encouraging every member of his agency to join in. Witnessing the profound impact of law enforcement’s involvement on the lives of athletes, Ian has also observed how it enriches the lives of his employees. As he interacts with athletes in the area, Ian is frequently recognized and greeted with warm, heartfelt embraces. These poignant moments serve as a powerful reminder of the immeasurable value of his participation and the incredible spirits of the athletes.
Learn more about the 2023 World Games in Berlin at specialolympicsusa.org.