The sounds of chatter and cheering bounced off the walls at the Montana State University Billings swimming pool Thursday, amplifying as they echoed around the room.
As five Special Olympics Montana athletes hopped into the pool and began their heat in the backstroke, the noise level jumped up a few decibels, and friends, family and coaches cheered and offered encouragement to the swimmers.
Cheers burst out as the first two racers finished and were repeated for each finisher, with the loudest round mixed with applause for the final racer’s finish.
“It’s not all about getting the gold medal,” said athlete Chad Schenschy, 23, of Kalispell, while he waited for his race to start. “It’s about having fun and making friends and cheering.”
Schenschy is one of more than 1,000 athletes in Billings through Friday for the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games. Thursday was the second full day of competition.
The games are an athletic competition for athletes with intellectual disabilities and include 70 teams from all over the state.
In the upper parking lot of Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark, more than 100 athletes strapped on their helmets for the day’s cycling races.
Billings brothers Evan and Issac Moran, 13 and 10, were in the morning’s first race — a 500-meter tricycle race — and finished second and first.
“We were riding the bikes and I crossed the finish line first,” Issac said shortly after the race.
The boys’ mother, Jaime Moran, said they’re very close and the games give them a place to get out meet new people.
“They’re total buddies,” she said. “So here, they’re comfortable with everybody around them.”
Nearby, 19-year-old Alan Rasmussen, of Eureka, showed off the big blue tricycle he raced a few minutes earlier while Top 40 hits pumped from a nearby speaker.
While sitting on the bike, which he nicknamed “Motorbike,” he talked about the race and being in town for the games.
“It went pretty good,” said Rasmussen, who also competes in track, bowling and golf. “But my favorite part is golfing. I’m good at golfing.”
It takes about 2,000 volunteers to make the games run. One of the most visible volunteer presences comes from law enforcement officers from all over the state, who hand out medals at the awards ceremonies as part of the Law Enforcement Torch Run.
Missoula Police Department Sgt. Mark Horner had the honor at Friday morning’s bike races. He’s been a torch run leg leader and assistant coordinator for the Missoula area for six years but has been a volunteer since the late 1980s.
Each time he handed out a medal, he’d congratulate the athlete and they’d pose for a picture together.
“As an officer, you really only get called out to the bad stuff,” he said. “With these athletes, the only judgment they do is that they love to see you. Their job is to motivate us, and they do that more than they know.”
Back at the MSUB pool, as the races continued, athletes from Great Falls cheered on their team members as they swam. One of those supporters, Jena Lawson, was named Special Olympics Montana Athlete of the Year.
She said that the award was nice, but she was more interested at the moment in how her teammates were doing.
“It’s great,” she said. “I was really excited about it but I really like seeing all of my friends here. That’s what’s fun.”