For some teams, like Laurel Middle School, it was their first trip to the Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games. For others, like the Cut Bank team, it was their 14th year.
For all 1,100 athletes from across the state, Opening Ceremonies at MetraPark’s Rimrock Auto Arena in Billings on Wednesday night offered a time to bask in the cheers and applause from thousands of fans, family members, coaches and volunteers and to celebrate sports as a way to excel on and off the field.
While competition in the three-day event began Wednesday, the official kickoff came with Wednesday night's event, which drew an estimated 5,000 people to the arena.
Teddy Lee Jr., 11, from Cut Bank, carried the Cut Bank sign as he paraded into the arena with his two other teammates, Robert “Robbie” Schiffner and Katie Siebrecht. So far, the Cut Bank team has done well.
Lee had already won a gold medal in the softball throw earlier in the day. He can add that medal to the three gold medals he has won in previous games. Siebrecht won a silver medal in the turbo javelin, and Schiffner won a fourth-place ribbon in the softball throw. Schiffner had his ribbon pinned to his T-shirt.
“He wears them all. He has fun coming out and playing,” said his mother, Barbara Schiffner.
Lorrie Siebrecht, Katie’s mother, is the head coach. “I fill out all the paperwork,” she joked.
“It’s fun. It’s really a great thing,” said Taffy McCombs, a Cut Bank coach who works as a teacher’s aide in special-education classes.
Laurel Middle School’s team fielded nine athletes in the school's first trip to the state competition. One of the athletes, Haylee Shepard, a seventh-grader, was looking forward to her running events as she waited to parade into the arena. “I am nervous,” she said.
Laurel’s coach, Kara McDonald, a special-education teacher, said she got involved because “I thought it was a really valuable opportunity for the kids.”
The Opening Ceremonies featured entertainment from dancers and singers and the lighting of the flame in the Olympic cauldron, a favorite tradition of Bob Norbie’s, the chief executive officer of the games.
The arrival of the Flame of Hope, a torch carried in the ceremony by Jena Lawson of Great Falls, the Special Olympics Athlete of the Year, and by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, is a symbol “of the hope and promise for the people we serve,” Norbie said.
The cauldron was surrounded by the Circle of Honor, formed by nearly 100 law enforcement officers from across the state.
For the past two weeks, 300 officers from 16 locations around the state carried their torches a total of 2,400 miles to meet in Billings on Tuesday.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, the honorary coach, welcomed the athletes. “It’s hard to say who has more fun. Everyone is richer for the experience. We can’t wait to see what you do,” he told the athletes.
Calling the athletes' courage and dedication “inspiring,” Bullock said, “You’re all champions.”
Competition got started Wednesday with athletes participating in track-and-field events, throwing events, soccer, golf, gymnastics, kayaking and bowling.
“The athletes were all over the city competing. They were eager to compete and give their personal best. They’re all winners,” Norbie said.
Vicki Dunham, Special Olympics chief operating officer, said the games drew 1,100 athletes on about 70 teams, which are supported by 400 coaches.
Another estimated 2,000 volunteers, mostly from the Billings community, also participate in the event, which couldn’t run without their help, Dunham said. “They have done a fantastic job,” she said.