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Athletes, backers celebrate Special Olympics torch arrival

Special Olympics Flame arrives

Special Olympics athlete Mark Aulebach lights the cauldron at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC.
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Special Olympics athlete Mark Aulebach lights the cauldron at the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC.

Zach Commander took the stage in front of the NASCAR Hall of Fame on Thursday and told the crowd of about 150 he couldn’t talk or walk until he was 5 years old.

He said kids teased him and called him slow. Yet for the past 30 years, Commander, 43 of Elizabeth City, has competed in volleyball, basketball and Alpine skiing for the Special Olympics.

“Special Olympics showed me I was just as good as others,” he said.

Thursday’s event, which featured live music and free cowbells, celebrated the arrival of the Flame of Hope in Charlotte on its way to the 2015 World Games in Los Angeles in July.

The torch made its way from Concord to uptown Charlotte on Thursday afternoon, as athletes and fundraisers carried it by foot and bicycle while supporters cheered them on. It arrived in front of the Hall of Fame around 7:15 p.m.

This is the first time the Special Olympics has used the nationwide relay fundraiser. Teams of 15 could carry the torch after raising $1,000.

Supporters have donated more than $100,000 in North Carolina, said Special Olympics North Carolina President and CEO Keith Fishburne.

Charles Bowman, the Charlotte and North Carolina market president of Bank of America, which sponsors the Special Olympics, said it was nice to see the effect of the sponsorship in person.

“It brings to life a little bit more what we have done,” he said.

On hand were veteran Special Olympics athletes Starr Kluttz of Concord and Katie Degnan of Charlotte.

Degnan, 22, who is headed to the World Games this year, said she would tell kids interested in participating to enjoy themselves.

“It’s not about winning – it’s about having fun,” she said. After a pause, she added, “And it’s free.”

The torch leaves Charlotte on Friday at 7 a.m.

Taylor: 704-358-5353; Twitter: @LangstonITaylor

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