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Special Olympics flame arrives in downtown L.A. for games

Lilia Ford, 14, wore a shiny blue leotard and held the hand of her new friend — a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy—as she pranced down Cahuenga Boulevard on Friday morning.

Cars zoomed by trying to enter the nearby Hollywood Freeway onramp, but that didn’t faze Ford or any of the other participants in this leg of the Special Olympics Unified Relay Across America.

Nearby, Lilia’s 13-year-old sister, Alina, walked with their mother, Rita Ford, who held a torch carrying the Special Olympics flame toward its final destination in downtown Los Angeles.

Alina was dressed the same way as her sister -- clad in a leotard with a multicolored lei and a gold medal around her neck. The girls had been winners in gymnastics at the California State Special Olympics. Rita adopted the girls seven years ago from a small town in the Ukraine, and the sisters both have fetal alcohol syndrome.

“You have no idea what they have had to go through to get to this point,” Ford said outside the Hollywood Bowl after passing the torch on to the next relay team.

“The sky is the limit. I’m so proud.”

Ford and her cohort raised $2,500 for the Special Olympics, which start in Los Angeles on July 25. Three separate branches of the relay began in late-May, in Augusta, Maine, Miami and Washington, D.C. -- winding their way across the country to arrive in L.A. on Friday afternoon. Three Special Olympics athletes carried torches on the final leg and together lighted a flame in downtown L.A.

The week-long occasion is expected to be a huge draw for the city and the largest event of its kind since the 1984 Summer Olympics. About 6,500 athletes and 3,000 coaches from 165 countries will take part. Officials anticipate 500,000 spectators and a boon to the local economy.

Special Olympics CEO Janet Froetscher cited a recent study from the Los Angeles Tourism Board in predicting that the games will bring in more than $400 million for the city.

“We expect to fill more than 25,000 hotel room nights and create substantial new business for Los Angeles restaurants as hundreds of thousands of meals are consumed throughout the games,” Froetscher said in an emailed statement. 

The Ford girls and their mother were on hand for the torch lighting Friday afternoon.

After walking their two relay legs in the morning, the girls milled around eating ice cream sandwiches and hitting each other with plastic water bottles. Onlookers banged cowbells as a lineup of speakers, including Police Chief Charlie Beck and former California First Lady Maria Shriver, spoke in glowing terms about the Special Olympics. 

Shriver’s late mother, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, who was instrumental in expanding the popularity of the Special Olympics movement, would have turned 94 on Friday. So Shriver and former Olympic decathlete Rafer Johnson led the crowd in a rendition of happy birthday.

Rita Ford looked on and exclaimed how proud she was of her daughters.

The first time they attended the games, the girls needed a translator because they didn’t speak English. Now the girls will volunteer during the events helping VIPs find their seats.

Lilia and Alina said they were excited to watch the gymnastics events along with the opening ceremony. Earlier in the day, when pressed on who was the better gymnast, Lilia demurred. Alina, on the other hand, easily answered.

“I’m better than my sister,” she said.

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