Special Olympics summer games officially kick off

2012-05-16T21:30:00Z 2013-05-15T16:17:13Z Special Olympics summer games officially kick offBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

Gracie Gribbons, 12, made the trip from Helena to Billings this week and has already picked up a silver medal, but a few minutes before the Parade of Athletes for the 2012 Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games Opening Ceremonies, all of that went out the window.

"It makes me a little scared but it makes me happy at the same time," she said.

She was nervous about being in front of the thousands of people gathered on Wednesday at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark to cheer on her and more than 1,000 other athletes from around Montana for the ceremonies.

While competition in 13 different Olympic-style events started in Billings earlier in the day, Wednesday night's ceremonies officially signaled the start of the games, which will be held each summer in Billings through 2014.

"We like to say sometimes that the state summer games are like the state championship, the senior prom and the senior trip all rolled in one," said Pete Olsen, Special Olympics Montana vice president of sports and competition. "This tonight is a celebration of all of that."

To officially start the games, Billings athlete Buzz Toliver and Mayor Tom Hanel acted as torchbearers and used the Flame of Hope to light the cauldron while the Circle of Honor -- representative's of the state's law enforcement agencies dressed in full uniform -- saluted them.

Law enforcement spent two weeks running the torch 2,300 miles to Billings as part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run.

Bob Norbie, Special Olympics Montana president, said the games have gone off extremely well so far and credited the dedication of about 1,900 volunteers.

"The competition is well organized, the athletes are enjoying themselves," he said. "I haven't seen anyone leave without a smile or a high-five or a thumbs-up."

Athletes, friends, family members and volunteers all crowded into the arena long before the cauldron was lit to check out the rest of the opening ceremonies.

Just before the lighting ceremony, the 1,000 athletes paraded around the arena floor with their teams, to the cheers of the gathered crowd.

"We're seeing smiles on the faces of the athletes and the volunteers and the coaches," said Rick McCann, senior investment manager at First Interstate Bank and the games' co-chair along with Steve Wahrlich. "It's about the people. Really, it's an uplifting experience."

Melanie Williams is Gracie's coach for the Tri-County Twisters and came up with eight other athletes from the Helena area. She said the games, and particularly the opening ceremonies, are uplifting.

"It's very rewarding," she said. "It's so gratifying to see them work so hard and accomplish so much. The ceremonies, they celebrate the athletes and let them know how much everybody appreciates them."

Lining the lower levels of the arena were hand-painted sings sporting slogans such as "Go Team!" and "All Olympians Deserve Gold."

Norbie described the games as "the games of possibility" because of their ability to bring people out of their shells.

"When you enable people, encourage them to have courage, that's when people really shine," he said.

It's also a chance for Billings to show off. Olsen walked away from the first day of the games impressed.

"The Billings community has been unbelievable," he said. "We’ve had the best start to a games that we’ve had since I've been here. The caliber of the volunteers coupled with planning and preparation and energy and attention to detail has been incredible."

As for Gracie, she successfully finished the lap with her team around the arena floor, smiling happily and with her arm draped over a teammate's shoulders and with nothing to be scared of, something she may have inadvertently predicted a few minutes earlier.

"I really like it," she said. "Every time it's so much fun. I don't know how I'll do but I'm hoping to get gold this time."

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