Haley Watts, 16, lined her toes up at the starting line at Wendy’s Field at Daylis Stadium and squatted a few times, warming up her legs while getting ready for her third and final shot at the standing long jump.
“This time, think ‘frog,’” said Katie Fay, Haley’s coach, encouraging her to jump a little further.
The pair traveled to Billings from Hysham on Friday for the first day of the Special Olympics Montana Yellowstone Valley Area Games, which continue through Saturday and draw in nearly 500 athletes, coaches and volunteers from the region.
They all gathered at Daylis on Friday morning for the opening ceremonies before a day of track and field, cycling and motor activities competition.
Hundreds of fans filled the stadium’s west bleachers, cheering on each racer, thrower and jumper. At one point midmorning, a group of about 25 grade-schoolers could be heard chanting and spelling out “Let’s go” during the races.
Dan Tilton, area games co-director, said enthusiasm like that permeates the games and it’s easy to see where it starts, and what the athletes get out of it.
“Just take a look at them at the end of a race and look at the smiles on their faces, or when they’re up there on the podium receiving awards,” he said.
Handing out ribbons and posing for photos with athletes at a podium near the track were area law enforcement officers, all members of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which raises money for Special Olympics throughout the year.
This is the second year Haley and Fay have made it to the area games in Billings. Before they came down, the school in Hysham introduced Haley at a pep rally and had a special ceremony for her. She earlier traded medals, one of her silvers for a gold, with one of the school’s track athletes who brought home a medal from last year’s state track meet.
“Yeah, it was great,” Haley said. “I loved it.”
Next year, they hope to bring another athlete, Haley’s sister, to compete in the games as well. But for now, the pair from Hysham is having a blast representing their town.
“This is our entire county team right here,” Fay said, pointing at Haley and herself.
Nearby, Tilton kept an eye on the races as athletes ran by. He said that any time you organize such a large event, there’ll be hiccups but that things seemed to be running smoothly with a larger-than-usual crowd on hand to cheer on the athletes and teams.
“I’d say it’s all going pretty well,” he said.