Haley Watts, from Hysham, was pumped Friday as she prepared for the parade of athletes at Special Olympics’ Yellowstone Valley Area Games.
The petite 15-year-old from Hysham School double high-fived her coach, Katie Fay, as the two waited with more than 300 athletes on the Daylis Stadium field for opening ceremonies to begin.
Watts said she was “very excited” to compete in her first Special Olympics.
“I like the 400-meter run,” she said. Watts also competed in the softball throw and standing long jump.
Watts’ goal? “A medal,” she said.
“Staying in the lanes. That’s what we’re going for,” her coach said.
“Go, Pirates!” Watts and Fay yelled as they hugged.
“Haley is a rock star!” cheered Fay. The two high-fived again.
Representing the Hysham Pirates, Watts wore the school’s colors in a yellow tank top and black shorts. She completed the outfit with blaze-orange-laced sneakers and red nail polish. Her long, brown hair was pulled into a ponytail.
Back in Hysham, Watts helps manage the school’s sports teams, said Fay, Watts’ special-needs aide.
“We get the cheering going. For once, Haley is the one being cheered,” she said.
The daughter of Staci and Chad Howard, Watts has Down syndrome, diabetes and Tourette's syndrome, has no functioning thyroid gland and is on numerous medications. She also is an honor roll student.
Watts has been training for the Special Olympics since January. Her school sent her off Thursday with a pep rally, complete with a band and flowers, Fay said.
The area games opened under sunny skies and warm temperatures, perfect for the track and field events scheduled throughout the day. The bowling competition takes place Saturday at Sunset Bowl. Other Saturday events include powerlifting at Plaza Fitness, gymnastics at Lewis and Clark Middle School and aquatics at Rocky Mountain College Fortin Center.
Tiffani Coleman, venue director, said a record 28 teams and 337 athletes had registered this year, mostly because the state games will be in Billings and athletes need to qualify locally to compete in the state games May 15-17.
Most of the athletes – students and adults -- are from Billings, Coleman said. But athletes also came from Red Lodge, Bridger, Roberts, Joliet, Colstrip, Forsyth, Fort Smith, Hardin, Huntley Project, Hysham, Lockwood, Roundup and the Special K Ranch.
In addition to the athletes, the games have 94 coaches and 74 team assistants and chaperones, bringing the total registered to 508 people. Another 150 volunteers are helping with the events.
Back at the opening ceremonies, a crowd cheered the athletes as they paraded down the track. The Lewis and Clark Choir sang the national anthem, while Father Jacob Knee, of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, gave the invocation.
Athlete Kelvin Hickok, from Elder Grove School, along with Yellowstone County Undersheriff Kevin Evans carried the Olympic torch and lit the caldron in front of the bleachers.
About 50 athletes with the Special Olympics Dance Team, called the Rockers, entertained the audience with an energetic version of “Gangnam Style,” the worldwide hit song by the South Korean pop star Psy. The audience whooped and cheered when the dancers galloped in place and shook their arms in the tune’s signature move.
“Let the games begin!” said the announcer.
Heidi Martin, a 49-year-old athlete from Billings, is a repeat competitor and likes to run and throw the softball. “It’s fun! It’s fun! It’s a blast!” Martin said.