Cheered on by coaches, friends and family, hundreds of Special Olympians gave it their all on Friday as they competed on the first day of the Yellowstone Valley Area Spring Games in Billings.
Opening ceremonies for the two-day event kicked off under sunny skies at Daylis Stadium. Fans cheered and waved signs from the stands, welcoming the estimated 325 athletes as they paraded on the track.
The ceremonies included a color guard, cheerleading and an invocation. A contingent of law enforcement officers stood at attention as Special Olympian Zach Smith, a Billings swimmer and Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder carried in the torch and lit the Olympic flame.
Smith will be going to the world games in Greece this summer as a member of the U.S. Special Olympics team.
“Let the games begin!” the announcer hollered.
Student and adult athletes competed in running, walking and wheelchair races, softball throws and long jumps into sand pits.
Andy Wulf, a ninth-grader and the only athlete from Colstrip, tossed a softball 17 meters, or about 55 feet. Wulf, who was pleased with his throw, is competing in three other events, the standing long jump, the 15-meter run and bowling on Saturday.
Over at the long jump, John Paul Zermeno, a Billings adult athlete who has competed in the event for years, launched himself into the sand from a standing position as coaches and other athletes cheered.
Competing in his second Special Olympics, 11-year-old Michael Betz, from Central Heights Elementary, high-fived and fist-bumped fellow athletes after a running long jump.
“My jump was really good. Way long,” he said. “I like to jump and throw.”
Betz’s father, Leo Betz, and grandmother, Trish Widner, followed Michael to his next event.
“We encourage him a lot,” Leo Betz said. “It helps him relax and get out his energy.”
Tiffani Coleman, area director of the Yellowstone Valley Area games, said student and adult athletes come from Billings area schools as well as from Roundup, Hardin, the Special K Ranch in Columbus, Hardin and Red Lodge.
The competitors train eight to 10 weeks for their events. Athletes who qualify go on to the state games, which will be held next month in Bozeman. The state games will be held in Billings in 2012 through 2014.
The Special Olympics, Coleman said, showcases athletes’ skills. The training and competition helps participants work toward a goal, she said. The event also features a dinner and dance on Friday night.