Billings Special Olympics athlete John Dodge carries the "Flame of Hope"

Billings Special Olympics athlete John Dodge carries the Flame of Hope as he leads law enforcement officials, called Guardians of the Flame, into a news conference Monday morning to inspire Special Olympics volunteers at the First Interstate BancSystem Operations Center.

Even though they put together what some called a banner year in 2012 for the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games in Billings, organizers said that doesn't mean much if they can't improve on it again in 2013.

"It's not about how well we've done," said Steve Wahrlich, Summer Games co-chair. "It's about how much better we can do."

Special Olympics officials met at the First Interstate BancSystem Operations Center, near downtown Billings, on Monday afternoon to launch the games, held for the first of three consecutive years in Billings last summer, and call for support from the community.

The games, which provide opportunities for athletes with disabilities to compete and socialize, will be held in Billings on May 14-17 and will draw more than 1,000 athletes, 450 coaches, 75 teams and thousands of volunteers for the 12-sport competition.

Last year's games ran with the help of about 1,500 volunteers and several hundred area businesses, costing about $380,000 to put on, said Bob Norbie, president and chief executive of SOMT.

That's something they hope to replicate this year, but it takes a hand from the community.

"We call upon all of the good citizens, the corporations and organizations in Yellowstone County to help us prepare," Norbie said.

As the premier sponsor of the games while they're in Billings, First Interstate Bank has been heavily involved in their implementation and operation.

Regional President Keith Cook said the interactions employees have with athletes while volunteering make it easy for First Interstate, and anyone else, to be involved.

"We do it for the thousands of athletes who learn, train and participate to the best of their abilities," he said.

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Vivienne Shockley, of Billings, is a longtime participant in SOMT. She recently returned from the Special Olympics World Games in South Korea, where she was one of just 10 athletes to participate in the Law Enforcement Torch Run, which raises money for athletes and leads up to the official cauldron-lighting ceremony to kick off the games.

At Monday's meeting, she told the crowd that she challenged the athletes there to be proud of who they are before issuing a similar call to local athletes.

"I give the same challenge to the athletes who will be at the State Summer Games," she said. "Be proud and stand tall."

Rick McCann, with First Interstate Bank, is the games' other co-chair. He described last year's games as "one of the best state summer games in any community" but said the goal is to increase the number of athletes participating while maximizing volunteer efforts.

"It's going to take more of the same effort," he said.

Wahrlich said that while everything ran extremely smoothly in 2012, they want to continue to smooth out volunteer management and resource allocation.

Continuing on the theme of improving from the previous year, officials unveiled the games' new slogan. Last year's was "Be a part of something special." For 2013 it's been upgraded to "I'm a part of something special," indicating the community is now a part of the games.

And the 2014 games' slogan will be "We're a part of something special."

Potential volunteers are advised to sign up early, either through the SOMT website or by calling the volunteer hotline at 406-896-5695 and put their names in for several shifts and activities.

"Get involved if you can, Billings community," McCann said. "Step up again and here we go for 2013."

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