Following a long journey, a small torch finally made its way into the Towson Center at Towson University Friday night.
Lower Shore athlete Kurt Dotterweich ran past the cheering crowd, handing the symbolic flames to fellow competitor, Carroll County athlete Tammy Holibaugh. Holibaugh ran across the balcony to hand the torch to Frederick County athlete Dennis Oetter, who hurried down to make the final pass to Upper Shore athlete Chris Dooley.
With hundreds of athletes, family members, friends and volunteers gazing at the two video screens hanging at both sides of the stage, Dooley brought the flame to its final destination, the Maryland Special Olympics cauldron.
"The celebration of unlimited possibilities has begun," opening ceremony co-emcee Rick Gesue said to the crowd. "We are now ready to kick off an incredible weekend marked by great sportsmanship, joy and accomplishment."
Gesue's co-emcee at the opening ceremony for the 41st Special Olympics Maryland Summer Games was world champion figure skater Kimmie Meissner.
According to the Maryland Special Olympics mission, the games allow athletes with intellectual disabilities to participate in physical activity and share their lives and skills with each other and the community. This year, more than 1,200 Maryland competitors were expected to participate in the Games.
"The sense of excitement that we have felt for the last couple of weeks building up to this and especially throughout this weekend is evident with the commitment and dedication and the excitement we have about having you here," Deb Moriarty, Towson University's vice president for student affairs, told the athletes.
But as excited as these sportsmen and women were for having the university as their home for the weekend, the real treat was seeing Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on stage. Flacco successfully made his way through the crowd of enthusiastic fans as they swarmed on him, trying to high-five him, hug him or take a picture with him.
Flacco had the opportunity to speak to the athletes and lead them in the athlete's oath: "Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt."
"As a special Olympian, what's our job? Do our best," Baltimore County swim coach Jay Silverman said, reciting the team cheer, "As a team, what's our job? Support each other --and then we say, 'Every day in every way we get better and better.'"
Silverman, whose daughter Melissa is on the swim team, said there are individual events within the swim meets but teamwork is still encouraged.
"We really try to get the team working together even though there are individual events," Silverman said and with the team's support, his daughter has set a goal for herself.
"I swim hard and I hope I get the gold," she said.
Chris Hancock, who has been a part of the organization for five years, is chaperoning this year and supporting his son Tim, who will playing bocce for the Carroll County team.
"I'm not sure who the more positive influence of all this has been on -- him or on us," Hancock said.
Hancock's daughter, Jenny, who is a volunteer, agreed. "Seeing how everyone works together, there are really no words to put it into. It's really amazing," she said.
But for Hancock, what captivates him the most is what he sees in the competitions.
"It blows my mind to watch some of these athletes, that something we take for granted and what would be easy for the average person, they are putting every ounce of energy they have in their body to do it and to cross the finish line," he said, "And to listen to the stadium, the people in there explode, cheering them on."
Special Olympics spokesman Jordan Bishop said that's what it's all about.
"It puts a huge smile on their faces," Bishop said. "The Special Olympics allows the athletes to go out be independent and gives them the confidence."
Competitions begin today from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. All events are open to the public.