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Jason Olson, Deseret News
Athlete Bethany Kirk of the Blue Lightning team carries the torch during the opening ceremonies for Special Olympics in Provo on Thursday.

PROVO — Overflowing with energy and excitement, hundreds of athletes paraded around Brigham Young University's Miller Park Thursday evening for the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Special Olympics Utah Summer Games.

Upon entering the ballpark, the obviously delighted athletes were greeted by an impressive welcome party including members of the Utah Blaze arena football team, Cosmo the Cougar, the Jazz Bear and members of Utah police and sheriff's departments.

"I love Special Olympics," said Lydia Barnard, who coaches a Crysalis-Provo team that brought 65 athletes to Special Olympics Utah to compete in soccer, softball and track.

"I've done it for a few years and I love it because the individuals have so much fun," she said. "It's so meaningful to them. To watch their faces — even if they don't win the game — to watch them be so excited to hit the ball or to see them at the opening ceremonies, dancing and so excited to be here."

Throughout the past few weeks, members of Utah police agencies participated in the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which annually runs the torch through counties around the state before arriving at Miller Park to light the Special Olympics Utah cauldron.

The athletes, sitting together as teams from every corner of Utah, were entertained by Bob and Randy Harmon from Harmons grocery stores, the 23rd Army Brass Band, the Mona Vie Skydive team and the Utah Blaze dancers,

Special Olympics Utah, a chapter of the larger Special Olympics Inc., was established in 1969 and now represents more than 2,000 Utah athletes. These athletes benefit from the services of about 5,000 volunteers statewide who contribute more than 300,000 hours to Special Olympics Utah annually.

"I've seen it change a lot of lives," Aleisha Boyd said.

Boyd, who works with some of the Special Olympics athletes in her work as an instructor with Salt Lake's Turn Community Services, came to the opening ceremonies to support her cousin, athlete Terry Brown.

According to Special Olympics Inc., athletes must be at least 8 years old and have an intellectual disability of some kind to compete in Special Olympics.

Each Special Olympics athlete is placed in a competitive division determined by age, sex and ability. There is no limit to the age at which athletes may compete, as some athletes compete into their 70s, according to Special Olympics Utah Web site. Worldwide, Special Olympics serves more than 2.5 million athletes in more than 180 countries.

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