'It's bittersweet:' Special Olympics summer games wrap up 3 years in Billings

2014-05-16T15:00:00Z 2014-05-19T00:01:06Z 'It's bittersweet:' Special Olympics summer games wrap up 3 years in BillingsBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

LAUREL — The third and final day of the final year for the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games' three-year stop in Billings brought mixed emotions for the thousands of people who organized, volunteered at and competed in them.

A little sadness to leave Billings after a successful run, mixed with a feeling of accomplishment at the same time for a job well done. Relief at a bit of rest after nearly four years of year-round planning, training and coordinating. And excitement at the prospect of bringing it all back to another community — Missoula — for three years beginning in 2015.

"It's bittersweet," said Bob Norbie, SOMT president and CEO. "It's such an enormous task. It reminds us what we're capable of doing, not only for the athletes, but for the community as a whole."

On Friday, the games wrapped up at Laurel High School, beginning with the Closing Ceremonies, followed by a full day of athletics competition. Inside the Laurel gymnasium, the attitude was nothing but enthusiastic, with the hundreds of people packing the bleachers and, given the slightest excuse to do so, cheering wildly, even occasionally breaking out into dance when songs such as "YMCA" or "The Chicken Dance" played.

This year's games drew more than 1,000 athletes, 450 coaches and thousands of volunteers — including the 120 or so members of the games management team — and loved ones to Billings, numbers similar to each of the two previous years. Billings tourism officials estimate games provided as much as $4 million to the Billings economy over the three years.

"It's good that it was a success, but there's more to it," said Rick McCann, First Interstate BancSystem vice president and the Billings games' co-chair, along with Steve Wahrlich. "It's that look in the athletes' eyes when they finish, that sense of accomplishment."

After the morning ceremonies, athletes from across Montana took to the track outside of the school. While waiting for their running events, Missoula teammates Mary Christensen, 14; Ethan Miller, 18; and David Hanson, 16, chatted with coaches and family.

They made the trek from Missoula for all three days of the games and said it has been worth the effort.

"Getting to be around so many happy people is nice," Miller said. "I like that. And you've got to push yourself to do the things you want to accomplish. I like that, too."

Hanson won gold medals in his two events earlier in the week and set a similarly lofty goal for his final event on Friday, the 50-meter walk.

"For my final event, I will be trying for a gold or silver," he said.

As for Mary, who said the secret to doing well at the games is to "just have fun," she's already looking forward to next year's games in her hometown.

"Well, we don't have to sit on a boring bus for so long to get there," she said. "Plus, we're going to show people how Missoula rocks."

She's not the only one getting ready for the 2015 games. A group of about 30 representatives from Missoula's games management team spent a day at this week's Billings games, chatting up organizers and getting a feel for how to plan and run their own version.

"They were getting an eyeful," Norbie said. "With those transition years, coming in they would say this is overwhelming."

On Thursday, Bozeman athletes Mike Neibauer and Mike Jessup, members of a team named the Bobcats, were already playing up the Bozeman-Missoula rivalry with a little good-natured banter.

"It's Missoula, of course we're going to go," Neibauer said. "We won't even go too hard on them."

Near the end of the Closing Ceremonies, local law enforcement officials — members of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which raised more than $500,000 for SOMT over the last year — and a handful of athletes officially handed over the Flame of Hope, used to light a cauldron to kick off the games each year, to their Missoula counterparts, literally and figuratively passing the torch for next year's games.

Both McCann and Norbie said that, while the State Summer Games are leaving Billings for a while, their impact should be felt in the Yellowstone Valley area for years and will hopefully provide a significant boost in membership, participation and support for the local Special Olympics program.

Already, a legacy program has been established, bringing together sponsors and other supporters from the state games efforts to keep it going for the local group.

"It's culminated with all of the steps that we've taken and we're just seeing that grow now," McCann said. "It's a growing family."

Norbie said one of the goals of moving the games to a new city every three years is to leave in place a stronger local SOMT program than before and challenged Billings and the surrounding communities to ensure that happens.

"It's absolutely amazing, that whole sense of community when everybody comes together to support each other," he said. When it works well, it's amazing and, quite frankly, humbling. They come together by choice.

"With all of the energy in the community that exists for these games, there is so much more that goes on with the local program throughout the year that the community can support."

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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