Special Olympics games bring out competition, camaraderie in athletes

2014-05-15T17:30:00Z 2014-05-16T15:10:14Z Special Olympics games bring out competition, camaraderie in athletesBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Kandace Faller and Kady Griffith stood on a busy thoroughfare on the grass of the Rocky Mountain College practices fields, holding out their hands to dozens of passers-by.

The duo, from Great Falls, came to Billings to compete in the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games this week and were giving high fives and encouragement to athletes and volunteers, strangers and teammates alike as they waited for their turn in the team bocce competition.

A member of the games management team stopped and chatted up the two 21-year-olds for a few minutes, asking how the games were going and how they were enjoying their trip.

"I just keep a big smile, try to have fun and try my best and I figure the rest will work out," Faller said.

Faller and Griffith are just two of the more than 1,000 athletes, along with 450 coaches and thousands of family members and volunteers, in Billings from across Montana to compete in the games, which feature Montanans with intellectual disabilities competing in a dozen Olympic-style events.

On Thursday, the second of three days of competition, the enthusiasm at a half-dozen venues across town was tough to ignore. In Montana State University Billings' lower gymnasium, cheers and encouragement filled the room as athletes strained under weighted squat bars during the powerlifting competition.

Glenn Roach, another Great Falls athlete, pumped himself up before lifting by bouncing around and occasionally slapping his chest. After he completed his lift, he continued with the jovial bounce and raised his arms, drawing enthusiastic cheers from the 75 or so spectators and athletes.

"I did it," he shouted.

Roach, who powerlifts and competes in track and field events, said he practices "all of the time" for Special Olympics and gets a lot out of being involved.

"I like when I power lift," he said. "And I like my friends."

One of his coaches from Great Falls, Micky Williams, said there's a level of camaraderie built by athletes and teams that's tough to find elsewhere.

"They're so supportive," she said. "They see the same faces year after year and sometimes this is their only chance to do that. They get to develop those bonds that come from that."

Back at the bocce competition at Rocky, a group of Kalispell athletes could be heard cheering on teammates, and some other competitors they'd met, during each deftly-placed toss of a ball.

Looking over the crowd, SOMT board member Beth McFadden said that Billings, which is in its third and final year hosting the games before they begin a three-year stint in Missoula, has been "incredibly supportive" and that the games were running about as well as they could.

"I don't think anybody can look at any part of this mission and say, 'I don't know about that,'" she said.

At the field's far east end, law enforcement officers — members of the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which supports SOMT and raises more than $500,000 annually for it — placed medals around athletes' necks when they finished competing, also to a round of vigorous cheers and camera flashes.

Alex Grubb and Alan Hopper, from Bozeman, won gold medals in their bocce division. While Grubb said their goal was to "go gold" at the games, both men were quick to answer that their favorite part went beyond winning.

"It's seeing old friends and meeting new people," Hopper said.

As Faller and Griffith — the pair from Great Falls — hung out in the bright spring sunshine at Rocky, slapping five with folks as they passed by, they ribbed each other a bit about their scores in the golf competition the day before.

In between the good-natured banter, they talked about their time at the games, this year and in years past and how, when it comes down to it, they're all part of the same team.

"Everything's going so great," Faller said. "Great weather, everybody's getting along and having a great time, how it should be. Even if this is her first year golfing and she one ups me with a gold (medal)."

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