By Ellen Thompson
There were big smiles and loud cheers from the onlookers when Great Northern Area Special Olympics athlete Eallen Sargent took to the winner's circle to receive awards for his performance in the day's events. Sargent, who was quiet most of the day, raised his arms and welcomed the applause.
Community members turned out in large numbers this week to support Great Northern Area Special Olympics. Thirty-five athletes were cheered on by more than 50 volunteers as well as parents and community members.
Many of the local competitors will travel to the statewide Special Olympics of Montana competition next month.
A concerted effort to encourage participation paid off this year, said co-organizer and Havre High School special education teacher Shaylee Lewis.
Last year Rocky Boy schools sent one athlete; this year they had five. Participation from Havre Day Activity Center residents increased from two to 14.
Athletes were all smiles Tuesday as they ran, jumped, threw and bowled.
"It's lifelong learning through sports," Lewis said. Athletes learn social skills and gain confidence by competing.
One of her students was a prime example. She said the girl shaved four seconds off her time in a sprinting event since she began to practice for it.
Crystal Laufer looked on as her 15-year-old daughter, Pamela, competed in the games.
"She's been doing really well," Laufer said, placing a hand on her daughter's shoulder when her daughter walked over to join her.
In the early 1970s, Laufer was in grade school and a participant in the games. She said swimming was her favorite event.
The games are fun, but they also give students a chance to shine, she said.
Lewis hopes to introduce swimming and other sports, but first she will need some more volunteer coaches.
In order to compete in the state competition, athletes need to have competed in the same event in their region. Though swimming and equestrian events are held at the state games, Hi-Line competitors will not be able to participate in those events until the region can hold preliminary rounds.
Unified soccer, with teams of athletes with and without disabilities, is another event Lewis said she would like to see begin locally.
Tuesday's competition did include an impromptu unified bocci ball tournament. Players who wanted to go on to the state competition in bocci ball were required to play as a team, but for those without any aspirations to play the game in Missoula, it was just for fun.
Special Olympics athletes were joined in bocci ball by Havre High School and Havre Middle School students who had volunteered to help out Tuesday. Montana State University-Northern basketball players were also on hand to help and joined several of the bocci ball teams.
The Havre High cheerleaders and Boys & Girls Club of the Hi-Line members volunteered their time as well, leading both organized and not so organized cheers.
After the day's track and field events the cheerleaders helped calculate the stats and assign ribbons for first-, second- and third-place winners. Havre police Capt. Stan Martin and Hill County Undersheriff Don Brostrom presented the awards.
Looking up from a list of the day's stats, cheerleader Cheri Clark said volunteering for the event was rewarding. "They're all so happy," she said.
"Even if they don't win, they still have fun," fellow squad member Amanda Haas added.
Competitor Don Leach said bowling was his favorite sport, though he had fun competing in the running and jumping events too. Leach has been practicing bowling once a week with other Havre Day Activity Center athletes.
"I'm having a happy day," Leach told Havre Day Activity Center residence home manager Darla Peterson.
Co-organizer Dusty Toth traveled to Havre from Bozeman where he's working toward a master's degree in education. Previously, Toth taught third grade in Havre. He has coordinated the event for the past two years and advised Lewis from Bozeman.
"I had some special-needs students in my classroom and they get excited when they see you there and see that you're cheering them on," Toth said.
Havre Mayor Bob Rice, Hill County Commissioner Mike Anderson and law enforcement officers visited throughout the day, as did Havre Public Schools administrators.
Coordinating the games for the first time has been a great experience, Lewis said.
"Giving an hour of your time can make so many people's lives happy," she said. "Even if they got second or third, there were no disappointed looks on their faces.
"It was an opportunity for those athletes to have an event where they felt special," she said.
Great Northern Area Special Olympics athletes will be selling raffle tickets for the next 10 days to support the statewide games. Raffle tickets are $5 and first prize is a new Chevrolet truck.
Locally, Bresnan Communications, Pizza Hut and Hi-Line Lanes contributed time and services to the Great Northern Area Special Olympics.