LAUREL — Laurel middle-schoolers Abby Round Face, 13, and Haylee Shepard, 14, noticed something about their daily practice sessions for their Special Olympics team.
The duo found that as the Special Olympics Montana Yellowstone Valley Area Games, set for Friday and Saturday, approach, those practices keep getting easier.
“Me and Haylee were running and the first practice we couldn’t finish (a lap on the track) and were both out of breath,” Abby said. “Now we can do it the whole way and are barely out of breath.”
Amanda Stevens, a Laurel special education teacher aide and coordinator of the Laurel Middle School Special Olympics team, said the girls are so into it that they’re now pleading to do another lap during practice.
It’s something that’ll come in handy for the girls, and their nine teammates, as they head into this weekend’s area games, which will bring 369 area SOMT adult and youth athletes representing 28 teams, more than 100 coaches and dozens of volunteers to Billings to compete in Olympic-type events through Saturday.
“It gets our athletes, coaches and volunteers started earlier on training,” said Tiffani Coleman, a systems analyst at First Interstate Bank and the Yellowstone-area SOMT director. “Our mission is year-round training and the games give them the chance to compete.”
That improvement and enthusiasm shown by the Laurel team is something that just a year ago officials weren’t certain would be there.
The program wasn’t suffering from problems, but it was in limbo for about six months after its coordinator and head coach left after taking a position at another school.
“It wasn’t really that it was completely down,” Coleman said. “They hadn’t been able to do a lot of training and we just weren’t sure if if we’d get any athletes this year from Laurel.”
Stevens previously volunteered with a Special Olympics team in Wyoming and wanted to ensure it continued in Laurel, so she took over as head coach this school year.
“When we moved up and heard about it, I wanted to get involved,” she said. “I just didn’t want to see it die.”
Since taking over, Stevens has organized practices after school most days of the week. The team now has 11 members — 10 middle-schoolers and a second-grader — and is getting new involvement from the rest of the school.
This year, Laurel special education teacher Casey Stone’s classes have adopted the team, with students planning to attend both the area games and the SOMT State Summer Games in May to cheer on their classmates.
The team spent a few days recently making a half-dozen large signs for fans to hold while in the stands.
“You get to see the other kids cheer us on,” said Emaleigh Round Face, a member of the team and Abby’s twin sister.
Organizers and team members alike say they’ve seen improvement across the board from the team members. Haylee, who plans to compete in four events this weekend, said that as the senior member, she helps guide and encourage her younger teammates.
“I tell them, ‘Good job,’ ” she said.
Stetson Spooner, 11, is a different kid out on the practice field. He’s shy and doesn’t talk in class but, once out practicing, opens up to other teammates.
“He’s goofing around and laughing and he’s talked a few times,” Stevens said. “You just see things that you don’t normally see in the classroom from them.”
Brianna Almendinger, 13, plans to compete in walking events and is a member of the games’ drill team. She practices the drill routines at home with her mom, while the family dog watches.
“My dog knows how it goes,” she said with a grin.
Coleman said there about 20 more athletes competing in this year’s games. She attributed that to more athletes signing up for bowling, a few more in track and field and increased exposure from the State Summer Games’ three-year stint in Billings, which ends in May.
She also said that for the first time years, a team from the Northern Cheyenne reservation will attend.
“They’re coming up for the first time in years,” she said. “They’re bringing six or so athletes. I don’t know when the last time was and I’ve been involved for the last six or seven years.”
As usual, members of the Law Enforcement Torch Run — area law officials who band together to raise money for Special Olympics — will be on hand to present ribbons to the athletes.
“They just do such a great job for us,” Coleman said. “The majority of our funding for our area games comes from them.”
Stevens plans to expand the Laurel team next year in an effort to reach athletes across town interested in participating.
The goal is to have a full program that includes the elementary and high schools, along with the middle school, which could add as many as 20 more students.
“We’re hoping that as the years go on that this grows,” Stevens said. “My goal for next year is to reach out to them. I’m going to try to make it work.”
The students on the Laurel team are are Jaedon Begrin, Reann Wetch, Dylan Foos, Whitney Kuck, Ryan Ness, Skyler Markigard, Abby Round Face, Emaleigh Round Face, Haylee Shepard, Brianna Almendinger and Stetson Spooner.