By JUDY SHERARD
The colorful uniforms -- red, blue, purple, even tie-dyed -- added to the pageantry of the parade of athletes at the Special Olympics of Kansas opening ceremony Thursday night in Gross Memorial Coliseum.
A total of 1,292 athletes signed up to compete, Tim Rehder, senior vice president of Special Olympics of Kansas, said earlier this week.
Most of the athletes entered smiling and waving to the crowd gathered to cheer just for them.
This year's tournament, the 39th held in Hays, is the largest Special Olympics basketball tournament ever held in Kansas, program president and CEO Chris Hahn said in his opening speech.
A total of 132 teams signed up to play, and the New Hope team from Pittsburg traveled the farthest, 340 miles.
Carol Solko-Olliff, director of international student services at Fort Hays State University, wished the athletes good luck, and gave them "a big Fort Hays State welcome."
Earlier this week, Solko-Olliff said she's been a Special Olympics volunteer for more than 30 years. She received the Bob Magerl award for most inspirational volunteer in 2006.
"Once you volunteer and see how motivated and excited the athletes are, you have to come back. It's contagious," she said. "(If you) help once, you try to come back."
Through the years, she's helped with track and field, soccer and volleyball.
Solko-Olliff and her husband Kenton Olliff also coach a basketball team every year. Their son, Thomas, also is volunteering for the first time this year.
"It's probably been one of the most fulfilling community service organizations I work with. You get so much more out of it than you put into it," Solko-Olliff said.
This year's opening ceremony was special for Neil Kuhn, a member of the Arc of Central Plains Buffalos.
He was selected to light the cauldron and give life to the Flame of Hope.
The honor of lighting the flame that sparks the beginning of the games usually goes to the past year's most inspirational athlete.
Last year the tournament was cut short, so "we didn't name a most inspirational player," Rehder said.
So a member of the Hays Buffalos was chosen to light the flame, and Kuhn was bursting with pride at being chosen.