As the unusually warm May sun toasted a Heights parking lot, the Havre Blue Ponies rolled in, hungry after after a five-hour bus ride and excited for the next few days.
The 17-person Special Olympics team arrived on Tuesday, with about 20 family members and coaches joining, for the annual Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games, which begin Wednesday and continue through Friday in Billings and will bring more than 1,000 athletes and thousands of others to town to compete.
"This is awesome!" said Emily Billmayer, 23, shortly after getting off of the bus.
The team made its first stop at the McDonald's on Main Street before diving into a full day around Billings and the next three days of competition.
For the second of three consecutive years, the summer games will be held in Billings and will feature teams and athletes with intellectual disabilities from every corner of Montana.
The members of the Havre squad, which includes children, teenagers and adults, arrived in Billings a little early so they could do some sightseeing and check out some of the amenities around town.
For last year's games, they visited a West End candy store. On Tuesday, they planned to visit Rimrock Mall before having a special dinner at Olive Garden.
"We try to make it all a life skills thing," said Shaylee Lewis, director of SOMT's Great Northern Area, which includes Havre and its surrounding areas. "So when we go to dinner tonight, they all have to order their own food."
The athletes practiced for their Olympic-style events for about eight weeks leading up to the games.
Jeff Carlson, 21, will compete in bowling, the softball throw and the 100-meter dash. He's been involved in Special Olympics for about 12 years.
"I love running," he said.
Billmayer's mother, Susan, said the summer games give the athletes a chance to explore Montana while building new relationships with other athletes and community members.
"I think they all really look forward to this," she said. "It's very important for everybody to socialize. It's important to get out and see different people and different places."
While waiting in line to order at McDonald's, athlete Erik Thompson, 24, demonstrated his bowling technique while talking about his favorite part of the games: Wednesday's opening ceremonies.
"I'm going to have fun listening to everything there and all of the loud noises," he said, referring to the musical performances and team announcements. "It's fun listening to that."
But before the ceremonies and before the competitions, the team's coaches wanted to make sure they had a little fun. Besides the trip to the mall and Olive Garden, they planned to take a swim in their hotel pool and relax.
"It's a lot of hard work and a lot of training, but our athletes have a zest for life, more than most people you meet," Lewis said. "We like to have fun when we do these things. We have more fun than anybody I know."