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Big Sky State Games executive director Karen Sanford-Gall

Big Sky State Games executive director Karen Sanford Gall receives a standing ovation after the announcement, during a press conference July 12, that this year would be her last as BSSG executive director before retiring. 

Thousands of Montanans are healthier and fitter thanks to Karen Sanford Gall.

For the past 30 years, Gall has worked hard for Big Sky State Games. Since 1996, she has been executive director, leading a small staff and an army of volunteers and event sponsors.

Gall has announced her retirement, so the 2019 games were her last as executive director.

During her tenure, the Big Sky Games grew to 48 sports competitions held on a July weekend in Billings and Laurel, plus spring sports: ice hockey, figure skating, curling, dance and indoor soccer. Altogether, about 10,000 people participate in the games annually.

The Big Sky Games keep Montanans moving year-round with the Big Sky Fit Kids program that encourages schools to incorporate more physical activity for students and Shape Up Montana, a program that challenges adults to get moving. Big Sky State Games organizes the annual Yellowstone elementary School Cross Country meet that brings fourth, fifth and sixth-graders together for a free 1-mile run. For many participants, that cross country meet is their first sports competition.

On July 12, the eve of the big games weekend, Gall announced her retirement to her State Games colleagues. Much as her energy, spirit and kindness will be missed, the overwhelming reaction was gratitude for her years of service. Big Sky State Games staff and sports commissioners gave her a standing ovation at her retirement press conference.

Gall leaves the games in good hands. Liana Susett, now assistant director, will become executive director in January. Susett started with the State Games as an intern and has been on staff for the past 15 years.

"Karen has been a great mentor," Susett said. "I couldn't ask for a better person to work for and she'll still be a phone call away."

In addition to her Big Sky State Games job, Gall has volunteered for countless community boards and projects, helping to improve fitness opportunities for people of all ages. Gall also has managed the Heart and Sole Run since 2011 as head of the nonprofit Montana Amateur Sports Inc.

A serious athlete herself, Gall was a competitive long distance runner and won the Heart & Sole 11 times between 1990 and 2006. She also ran marathons. She still runs to keep in shape at age 59.

Gall is a tremendous leader in our community. She is an excellent role model for all of us in keeping focused on the Big Sky State Games mission to the benefit of Montanans all over our great big state.

"Our purpose and our mission has grown," Gall told Gazette deputy sports editor John Letasky. "Our flagship is the Big sky State Games. But our mission is healthy lifestyles and promoting healthy lifestyles."

In retirement, Gall plans to be a State Games volunteer. Thanks, Karen, for giving us the inspiration to keep moving for fun and fitness.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.