After more than a decade in other cities, the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games are returning to Billings this year, and they won't be going anywhere for the next few years.
"The last time they were in Billings was the year 2000," said Bob Norbie, SOMT president. "Since that time, the organization has grown in the number of athletes, the amenities, everywhere."
Scheduled for May 15 through 18, the games will bring more than 1,000 athletes — and more than 1,000 coaches, family members and friends — from every corner of the state to compete in 13 Olympic-style events, from bowling to cycling, from track and field to aquatics.
The games will be in Billings through 2014 after spending the last three years in Bozeman.
Local businessman Steve Wahrlich is co-chairing the games with Rick McCann. He said the games' success depends on how Billings embraces them, which is something he's not too worried about.
"Even with Billings being very philanthropic, I'm extremely surprised at the tremendous support in a short period of time that the community has come forward with," he said. "It's been everything from cash to donations to volunteers."
Special Olympics officials described the games as not just a way for the 2,000 needed volunteers, citizens, businesses and organizations to give. They provide something in return as well.
"It's unbelievable and very fulfilling," said Pete Olson, SOMT's vice president of sports and competition. "We use sports as a way to connect and empower communities and empower people with disabilities."
The games officially kick off at 7 p.m. on May 16 with opening ceremonies at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark.
More than 300 law enforcement officials from across the state will have spent the previous two weeks running and biking the Flame of Hope 2,315 miles along Montana's roadways for the Law Enforcement Torch Run. They'll use the torch to light the cauldron, signifying the start of the games.
Over the following three days, the 1,000 athletes, of all skill levels and ages, will compete in numerous Olympic-style events at venues around town.
"You'll see pure sport in a very beautiful way," Olson said.
About 15,000 Montanans have intellectual disabilities, Norbie said, and that SOMT serves roughly 2,000 of them annually, with half of those people attending the summer games.
Organizers say they're working to make sure that, even after the games move to Missoula in 2015, their impact remains in Billings.
"When people spend a day there, it will change their lives," Wahrlich said. "Like our motto says, be a part of something special. It's unlike anything you'll ever do."
For Norbie, who's been working for SOMT for 20 years and has seen 60 area and state games, it's still a learning process for him, the communities and the athletes.
"It's truly a celebration of the human spirit, a place to acknowledge all the good that comes out of not only the efforts, but what the communities choose to do," he said. "It's special for not only the athletes, but the communities, the volunteers, everyone involved.
"I'm looking forward to the recognition and celebration of people with different abilities. We all might have our challenges but we all have a lot of potential. We do that through sports — see potential."