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More than 400 athletes, family members and community volunteers spent a pristine Thursday morning running through or walking about La Plata as part of the 27th annual Law Enforcement Torch Run for Special Olympics Maryland.

The Charles County Sheriff’s Office sponsored the local run, its largest annual fundraiser, for the 19th time and, based on early estimates, figured to raise around $20,000 for Special Olympics, in line with the hauls from previous torch runs, event coordinator Sgt. Chris Schmidt said.

The rosy projection was made all the sweeter by the mid-70s temperatures, which seemed chilly compared to the hot and humid conditions that have plagued the event in recent years.

“This is the first year in four or five years that we’ve had good, nice weather,” Schmidt said. “Couldn’t be better.”

The torch started on Monday in St. Mary’s County and made its way to Calvert County on Tuesday before heading over to Charles County. Tonight it will arrive at the 42nd annual Maryland Special Olympics 2012 Summer Games at Towson University, where it will join with torches from other regions of Maryland to form one flame at the opening ceremonies, said Mike Bovino, chief strategic development officer for Special Olympics Maryland.

The sheriff’s office is the top local fundraising agency in the state for Special Olympics, impressive given that Maryland’s law enforcement agencies collectively contribute more than those of any other state or overseas country, Bovino said.

Last year the state’s law enforcement agencies raised $3.3 million for Special Olympics, $2.8 million of which came from the Maryland Polar Bear Plunge at Sandy Point State Park in Annapolis, which is sponsored annually by the Maryland State Police.

Additionally, the Charles County torch run was the largest in the state this year and has been for the past five, Bovino said. Last year, the sheriff’s office sold $20,610 in torch run T-shirts, more than three times the second-place agency, the Maryland Department of Corrections, which sold $6,000 in T-shirts.

“Charles County has that singular distinction,” he said. “You’ve got great support here.”

Bovino credited the “institutional organization” of the sheriff’s office and support from local government for the torch run’s success.

Charles County will be represented by 45 athletes at the Summer Games, 10 of whom participated in the torch run, said George Hoehl, area director for Special Olympics Maryland.

Seven local athletes ran and another 15 walked in the torch run.

Charles County sheriff’s Sgt. Gus Proctor, who helps organize the torch run alongside Schmidt, said money is not the only benefit of the torch run.

“I think even beyond the funding, it really does raise community awareness of the Special Olympics and disabilities,” said Nick Anderson, Southern Maryland regional director for Special Olympics Maryland. “The light it puts on our organization is really crucial to what we do.”

About 400 participants gathered at the Texas Roadhouse in La Plata to begin the run at about 9:30 a.m. In addition to a four-mile run, 2.5-mile and five-mile walking courses also were available.

A refreshment tent, complete with fruit, water donated by Food Lion and food donated by Chick-fil-A and T&J Bar-B-Que in La Plata, was set up in a vacant lot east of the nearby McDonald’s.

Anderson could hardly believe it when Thomas Stone High School physical education teacher Adam Lowe came speeding up Drury Drive and arrived at the tent 22 minutes after the run began, by far the fastest time of any participant.

Lowe brought along several Thomas Stone students in ROTC and on the cross country team to the torch run.

To Anderson, student participation is a critical part of the event.

“That really helps change the current cultural impression of our kids in schools that our athletes are different,” he said. “This really helps make them realize our athletes are athletes just like anyone else.”

Paul Ribeiro of Port Tobacco was the first to cross the finish line with the torch, about 10 minutes after Lowe came speeding through.

Ribeiro has been a Special Olympics participant for five years, and will compete in bocce at the Summer Games. His girlfriend, Terri Lynn of Nanjemoy, whom he met through Special Olympics, will compete in swimming.

Moments later 113 U.S. Marines and sailors from the Chemical and Biological Incident Response Force stationed at the Naval Support Facility Indian Head streamed in, running in unison and cadence. Proctor brought up the rear.

“Some of us are not strong runners like others,” he said with a laugh.

It was the sixth straight year the CBIRF team participated in the torch run, Proctor said.

U.S. Marine Corps Capt. Adam Birchenough of Alexandria, Va., said the event was a great way for the unit to give back to the community while also getting a little exercise on a beautiful spring day.

“I know last year was pretty hot, so it’s been great,” he said. “Marines like to work out anyway, so it’s a great opportunity to come out and do that.”

Once all of the walkers finished their course, the 10 participants set to compete in the Summer Games each were awarded a medal donated by Crown Trophy in Waldorf.

Of those 10, nine will be competing in bocce, including Shana Sharar, 43, of Waldorf, who has been involved in the Special Olympics since she was 8.

Sharar, who helped put together a public service announcement advertising the torch run, said she was “excited” about her medal and looking forward to playing some bocce this weekend.

Her mother, Pat, said Special Olympics has been a wonderful passion for her daughter, who also has competed in swimming, bowling, golf, ice skating and tennis.

“It means a beautiful life, for all of our athletes, not just her,” Pat Sharar said. “They’re all fighters.”

jnewman@somdnews.com