Thousands of people turned out for the 2014 Special Olympics Montana opening ceremonies at the Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, where the Torch of Hope — a national symbol of the games — was lit in Billings for the last time this decade.
As Chrissy Siefke, this year’s Special Olympic Montana Athlete of the Year, and Billings Police Chief Rich St. John were announced as carriers of the flame, SWAT team members rappelled from the rafters with three unlit torches.
Heavy rock blasted from the speakers, battling cheers of approval from the crowd, as the four members, dressed in camo pants and black T-shirts, made their way to the floor.
After Billings Young Marines volunteers put fuel in each of their torches, the team climbed the platform and lit the cauldron, symbolically bringing opening the games.
It must’ve been what Bob Norbie, president of Special Olympics Montana, meant when on Tuesday he said there would be “a surprise” when the torch arrived.
Other highlights from the night included live music, a group of inflatable dancing creatures called “Zooperstars,” plenty of dancing and a speech from Gov. Steve Bullock, this year’s honorary head coach.
After parading around the stage floor in a truck that is being raffled off during the event’s closing ceremonies, set for Friday at Laurel High School, the governor offered his encouragement for this year’s athletes.
With the games headed to Missoula next year, Bullock also thanked Billings for hosting the last three years.
“We’re expecting a lot out of Missoula next year,” he said.
In Montana, the Special Olympics rotate between cities every three years. Billings won’t host the event for another 10 years.
Athletes Krystin Thompson and Kerrie Sheets, together with Rob Griggs, a pastor and meterologist, led the event as the masters of ceremonies.
Thompson, a 19-year-old junior at West High School, introduced herself as an energetic athlete who has been competing in the games since she was 10. This year, Thompson said, she’ll compete in track and field, basketball and bowling.
Sheets said she has been competing for 25 years. In 1987, she said, she was selected to attend the International World Games at Notre Dame as a distance runner, where she came in first place. She also traveled to Yale University to play basketball at the World Games and finished sixth.
She said she looks forward to completing in track and field Friday.
Her mother, Gail Sheets, a coordinator for the games, said she looks forward to the games each year as it offers the chance reunite with friends, who over the years, have become more like family, she said.
The 69 teams competing in this year’s games were also introduced.
Kevin Kearns, of the Bitterroot Stars, said he’s “excited for everyone to have fun no matter what.”
Brianna Pester, of Forsyth, said Wednesday’s event was a blast, her favorite part being the dancing. Pester, who took home the silver in Wednesday’s softball game, is looking forward to what bowling brings Thursday.
Her parents, Heather and Wayne Pester, said they were impressed by the ceremony.
Marco Aasterud, a Billings Young Marine who volunteered at the event spoke about the importance of the event. He said it offers the same sort of values he’s taught as a Young Marine.
The games continue on Thursday and closing ceremonies will be Friday in the Laurel High School Gymnasium, beginning at 8 a.m.