My Name is Joe and I'm Sorry

Joe Carroll has been a leader in Law Enforcement Torch Run for decades.

“My name’s Joe, and I’m sorry.”

It’s unusual to get an apology along with an introduction. But then, Joe Carroll is nothing if not unusual.

There’s Joe the police corporal, a 29-year veteran of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, which operates Dulles International and Reagan National airports.

There’s Joe the Special Olympics Virginia volunteer extraordinaire, coordinator of the annual Dulles Day Plane Pull and director of the Law Enforcement Torch Run Executive Council.

And then there’s the “I’m sorry” part: Joe the jokester, who isn’t above participating in Polar Plunges dressed as Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus, a cheerleader or a harlequin, or in a pink tutu. Weighed down by his over-the-top costume, “I had an athlete once pull me out of the water,” Carroll says matter-of-factly. “He thought it was the greatest thing that he just saved a cop from drowning.”

Now 50, Carroll has yet to grow up. But he’s old enough to be retiring from his job at the airports authority, which means he won’t be in charge of the Plane Pull anymore. He’s being replaced by two people; Special Olympics Virginia officials are hoping that’s enough.

The Plane Pull has become Carroll’s signature event, expanding to include more than 80 teams, 2,000 athletes, 15,000 spectators and, out of necessity, not one but two planes. During his tenure, the event has gone from raising $132,000 to nearly $500,000 a year.“

It’s hard to keep asking people for money over and over and over again,” Carroll says during an interview at Special Olympics Virginia’s Fairfax office, where he mugs willingly – dare we say eagerly? – for the camera. “But you’re actually helping the athletes. You can see where your money goes.”

Growing up in rural Maryland, Carroll had a friend with Down syndrome who was close enough to be treated as a cousin. People with disabilities, he figured, were just like him. He started running score sheets at time trials for Special Olympics at the tender age of 12.

He went to work at the airports authority in 1994 and began helping with the Plane Pull, the first of its kind anywhere. Today it remains the biggest of its kind, representing one of Special Olympics Virginia’s largest annual fundraisers.“

A lot of people don’t recognize how good of a leader Joe actually is,” says Ellen Head, Special Olympics Virginia’s Senior Director of Development and Law Enforcement Torch Run Specialist. “He gets people involved. He brings people to the party because of his exuberance.”

Carroll also brings people to the party, er, table in his capacity leading the Torch Run council. He was the first to insist that Special Olympics athletes have seats there. Today the council includes three athletes – and Carroll is a member of the international organization’s Hall of Fame.

“He always has treated our athletes just like everybody else,” Head says. “He’s always been very big on athlete inclusion and athlete equality.”

One of the athletes on the Torch Run council, Rose Pleskow, an aquatics and track star, says Carroll “always makes me laugh.”

“It’s the athletes who inspire him every day,” Pleskow says. While she will miss him leading the Plane Pull, “I’m very happy for his new adventures coming.”

Carroll’s involvement with Special Olympics led to South Korea for the 2013 World Winter Games, where he was part of the Torch Run’s final leg. (He also jumped into the ice-cold Sea of Japan in early February.) His Torch Run leadership role has taken him from Canada to the Bahamas and throughout the United States, often as a public speaker.

“Joe sometimes has no filter, and that can get him into trouble,” says Roy Zeidman, Senior Vice President at Special Olympics Virginia. “ But he understands when to have fun and when it’s important to put the right message out. Whether it’s picking up trash or speaking to the governor, he’ll do both.” Carroll’s serious side may come as a surprise to the Special Olympics athletes, parents, volunteers and officials who are more accustomed to his jokes and pranks. True to his reputation, he makes it difficult to quote him word-for-word without some expletive-deleteds.

But he understands when to have fun and when it’s important to put the right message out. Whether it’s picking up trash or speaking to the governor, he’ll do both.”
- Roy Zeidman, Senior Vice President of Special Olympics Virginia

Carroll’s retirement from the airports authority police force this year coincides with his upcoming marriage in November. Perhaps fittingly, he met his fiancée, Lynsi, on a prison bus, the mode of transportation that was taking them to a law enforcement conference in Delaware. Never shy in such settings, Carroll hung signs on the windows declaring, “I didn’t do it” and “I was framed.”

He plans to work another decade or more, then retire to Florida and work at Disney World, where his extravagant costumes might fit right in. But first, there is much more to be done for Special Olympics here in Virginia.

Coaching the athletes, perhaps? Nope. “I’m not a big sports fan. I wouldn’t know what to do,” he admits. “I want to go back to my roots – just be a volunteer. We’re all here to make lives better for the athletes.”

One thing is for sure.

“No matter where he ends up,” Zeidman says, “he’ll be connecting more people to Special Olympics.