Merriam Police Cpl. James Browning remembers being a bit ambivalent about his first volunteer efforts with the Special Olympics. It was back in 1984, when Browning was still in the U.S. Army, and a supervisor asked him to pass out medals. He didn’t know much about the group, which organizes athletic competitions for children and adults with intellectual abilities.
“I remember kind of being voluntold to help out,” he said. “But I loved it. I’ve been hooked ever since.”
And after three decades volunteering for the organization, Browning had the chance last month to represent Kansas law enforcement ahead of the Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria. Law enforcement agencies generate money for Special Olympics operations across the world through fundraisers. As part of a way to recognize the time and energy invested in those efforts, local groups nominate officers to participate in the activities ahead of major Special Olympics events. When the Special Olympics announced it would be holding this year’s winter competition in Austria, Kansas law enforcement officers nominated Browning to represent the state in the running of the torch.
For ten days, he and a group of other law enforcement officers from around the world slowly ran the torches that would be used to light the flame at the opening ceremonies through the Austrian countryside. Each group of officers was joined by a Special Olympics athlete, who would carry the torch with them and participate in handoff ceremonies in each city.
“It was an amazing time,” he said. “We were very structured, though. Typically we’d leave the hotel at 6:30 a.m., and then we wouldn’t check into the new hotel until about 9 p.m. We didn’t have a lot of open time. But it was really an amazing journey. It’s hard to put into words.”
Being in Europe was nothing new for Browning, who grew up in Germany and Italy, eventually moving with his family to the U.S. when he was 17. But he said no travel experience matches getting to join with other law enforcement officers to support the games.
“It really was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said.