"Guardian of the Flame"

Fairfax County Police Department's Peter Flynn will represent law enforcement across Virginia at the 2022 USA Games.

When Peter Flynn jogs into Exploria Stadium in Orlando on June 5 for the opening ceremony of the Special Olympics USA Games, the 5,500 athletes and coaches and an estimated 25,000 spectators will pay special attention.

Flynn won’t be there as a bocce coach or unified partner, though he is both of those back home in Virginia. Instead, he will be a “Guardian of the Flame” – carrying the Special Olympics torch on its final leg from Connecticut to Florida.

Flynn has been many things in his career: police officer, special agent with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), and now Director for Intragovernmental Affairs with the Fairfax County Police Department.

But no job brings him more joy than his decades volunteering with the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which raises both public awareness and financial donations for Special Olympics worldwide. To date, the 40-year-old organization has raised more than $900 million.

Perhaps that’s because in law enforcement, “People aren’t always thrilled to see us,” Flynn, 58, says. Usually it means “something bad has happened.”

But by carrying the torch into Special Olympics events large and small, “It lets the community see us as people,” he says. “We really are here to help. We care about our community. And we get more out of it than we put into it.”

That was true one recent morning at Wakefield High School in Northern Virginia, where Flynn and a group of Fairfax County police officers ran the torch into a “Feet Meet” for students with and without disabilities from a dozen area schools. Flynn handed the flame off to Fairfax Capt. Shawn Adcock and Special Olympics athlete and social media director Daniel Morales at the 50-yard line.

Peter Flynn runs in the torch at the Arlington Feet Meet.

Helping to run the festivities was Ellen Head, Special Olympics Virginia’s senior director of development and Law Enforcement Torch Run specialist. She is among Flynn’s biggest fans.

“I wish I had a thousand of him,” Head says. “Pete is very good at thinking strategically. He’s been super-engaged. And he’s just a kind and caring person.”

The Torch Run started in Wichita, Kansas, in 1981 and has grown into Special Olympics’ largest vehicle for public awareness and fundraising. Flynn has been involved for several decades and was instrumental in getting his police department to be one of its champions.

It’s not always as glamorous as it sounds: Officers aren’t marathoners, and they often hop into vans as the torch makes its way across the country. The job entails quite a bit of planning and logistics

“Everybody talks about the matches and the Games,” he says. “Most of it’s practice.”

But the thrill of kicking off local, state, national and world games is worth any tedium involved. Next month’s USA Games will be a first for Flynn, who has guarded the flame at State Games in Richmond and elsewhere.

Through the Torch Run, Flynn has helped raise funds in myriad ways: Polar Plunges. Plane Pulls. “Challenge the Chief” and “Cover the Cruiser” events. Golf tournaments. And more.

When he’s not guarding the flame, Flynn often can be found coaching and playing sports with Special Olympics athletes. Lately it’s been bocce, a unified sport.

“One of the greatest compliments I ever got was when somebody referred to me as a coach, and my partner Joey said, ‘Hey, he’s no different than us! He’s a player!’” Flynn recalls.

He compares bocce to life in general: If things aren’t going your way, you can knock some balls out of the way and change the face of the game.

“That’s one of the things that we talk about with the athletes,” he says. “We can all be game changers. You just have to have the courage to do it.”