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The torch runner from Tilden climbed the stairs as thousands cheered.
Evan Davis, a Special Olympics athlete, held the torch in the air and then ignited the silver cauldron. The flame shot high.
The Flame of Hope.
And the 2010 Special Olympics USA National Games – the biggest sporting event in the history of the state – officially began Sunday evening at the Bob Devaney Sports Center.
“Wow,” said Tim Shriver, son of Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. “What a moment.”
The Special Olympics International CEO told the crowd he felt honored, grateful, emotional. And ready.
He said he was thrilled to have these games in Nebraska, a state with a pioneer spirit. A state of trailblazers, like his mother.
She saw obstacles everywhere when she first started the Special Olympics, he said. And no one, he said, believed her. But she believed in the athletes.
And these games.
“Are we ready to let these games begin?” Shriver said. “Are we ready to say those words my mother said … ‘Let the games begin!'”
The opening ceremony began with the Parade of States. Each delegation of athletes walked in like rock stars – 3,600 athletes from 47 states. They walked through smoke from smoke machines. Many wore the Husker-red sunglasses, the signature item of these games.
Team Alabama wore houndstooth hats in a salute to coaching legend “Bear” Bryant.
Team Texas did the “Hook ’em Horns” symbol.
Team Maryland wore hats shaped like crabs.
“From the state that gave us the best crabs in the world!” the announcer proclaimed.
Brooklyn Decker, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit model who was one of the emcees and whose aunt has competed in Special Olympics, helped escort Team North Carolina, her home state. Her husband, Nebraska native and tennis champ Andy Roddick, helped lead the athletes’ oath.
Actor Eddie Barbanell, Decker’s co-emcee, helped escort Team Florida, his home state. He was in the movie “The Ringer” a few years back, upstaging Johnny Knoxville in their scenes together. Barbanell has Down syndrome.
“American Idol” finalist Michael Sarver, a big guy, walked in with the big state of Texas.
And, finally, Team Nebraska, with the biggest delegation – 286 athletes.
“This is OUR team!”
People stood and applauded a long time. Team Nebraska’s athletes wore red shirts and waved white towels over their heads.
Amanda Marshbanks, a Lincoln swimmer, rocked out with her towel.
Among Team Nebraska’s escorts were Olympic gold medalist Curt Tomasevicz, a bobsledder from Shelby; Gov. Dave Heineman and his wife; Sen. Ben Nelson; Rep. Jeff Fortenberry; and Mayor Chris Beutler.
The games – the culmination of three years of planning – run through Friday. More than 19,000 people are expected to participate, including athletes, friends and families and volunteers.
“We have rolled out the red carpet – and the red sunglasses,” the governor told the crowd. “As our guests, I know you will experience a friendly and warm welcome here in Lincoln and throughout the state.”
The athletes cheered Grammy-winning singers Jars of Clay and Sandi Patty. They watched inspirational videos about athletes and the roads they took to Lincoln.
Near the end there was a moment of silence for Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who died last August.
Decker, the model, asked Barbanell, the actor, to talk about his friendship with Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
What did she mean to him?
“She never gave up,” Barbanell said. “She never said no to Special Olympics athletes. She told us to never quit.
“As she used to say, ‘The sun never sets on the Special Olympics.'”
He blew kisses to her. He aimed high, in the direction of the sky.