It took 20 minutes of coaxing, but Donna Meyer, of Billings, got her daughter, Lindsay Stahl, to pose while she took her photograph by the Special Olympics cauldron in the middle of the gym floor at Laurel School at closing ceremonies Friday morning.
Stahl won a gold medal in swimming during the three-day Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games, which drew 1,100 athletes on 70 teams, along with 400 coaches and thousands of fans and families from across the state to Billings.
“She loves to swim,” Meyer said.
Stahl, 29, has been competing in Special Olympics since she was 8 years old. As a baby, Stahl was healthy until she developed a brain tumor at 28 months. Treatment, including radiation, left Stahl with disabilities, Meyer said.
Stahl has been diagnosed with another brain tumor and has been battling seizures with medication. This latest challenge has decreased Stahl’s physical abilities but not her spirit and determination. She made it across the pool — a feat that “made us all cry,” Meyer said.
“We’re just rockin’ it. She’s our prize. We’re just happy that we’re here and she’s with us,” Meyer said.
Competing in the Special Olympics is Stahl’s focus every year, Meyer said.
“It’s our dream. She gets to show off her abilities. It’s all about her,” she said.
Stahl and all of the athletes basked in the high-energy celebration Friday of a successful sporting event that promotes acceptance, respect and inclusion.
Whether an athlete won a medal or didn’t, they all left as champions.
“To me, to all of you, you’re all winners! Great job everybody! You guys are all phenomenal, amazing,” said Steve Wahrlich, Special Olympics co-director and owner of the Clocktower Inn in Billings, who emceed the closing ceremony in a rainbow-colored tie-dyed T-shirt and jeans.
The crowd, which packed the bleachers, cheered, applauded and roared their response when Wahrlich asked, “How many of you guys want to come back to Billings?”
The games will return to Billings in 2014 for its third and last year before the event moves to Great Falls for a three-year run. In addition to the athletes and coaches, another estimated 2,000 volunteers, mostly from the community, and numerous sponsors also helped with the event.
Wahrlich praised the support of the games by the Yellowstone County community.
“Our goal was to raise this,” he said. The organizers, he said, want participants to go away thinking, “Wow! We really enjoyed Billings.”
Bob Norbie, president of Special Olympics, delighted the crowd when he tapped his goofy side — Bob “The Bull” Norbie — and ran into the gym dressed in hot-pink tights, a tie-dyed T-shirt and full buffalo headdress.
Chased around the floor by 2013 Miss Rodeo Montana Alyson Grinestaff, of Bozeman, Norbie got corralled at some hay bales, where Grinestaff roped him with her pink lasso.
Athletes then took turns tossing hula hoops at The Bull, drawing cheers when the rings found their target.
Norbie, who greets the athletes by name and with high-fives, thanked everyone for participating, saying he saw “outstanding, personal-best efforts.”
The Olympic flame burned in the cauldron in the middle of the gym during the hourlong event before being extinguished by three athletes, each escorted by a law enforcement officer. Athlete Stacey Johnston Gleaso, of Havre, dipped her torch into the cauldron and then presented the flame one last time to the crowd before the procession left the gym.
Billings resident Kim Farley, a Special Olympics coach for 18 years whose daughter, Jessica Hasler, 26, participated in track and swimming events, praised the games.
“It’s awesome to have it in your own community,” she said.
“A lot of our athletes got their personal bests,” Farley said. “Special Olympics, in general, gives them confidence. But I think for all the athletes, the social interaction is priceless.”