As the Olympic procession sounded, 20 western Kansas Special Olympics teams were recognized during opening ceremonies Friday morning at Gross Memorial Coliseum on the Fort Hays State University campus.
The annual basketball and cheerleading tournament began shortly after the ceremony, with an estimated 900 athletes and coaches participating in the Hays contest. A second competition will be next weekend in Topeka.
For some local athletes, Special Olympics Kansas is a tradition that has been with them for much of their lives.
Joe Newton, Russell, was all smiles Saturday morning, and was quick to say he enjoys the games.
“44 years,” he said when asked how many years he has been playing basketball.
Games continued through Saturday afternoon at several locations across Hays, including the coliseum, Hays High School and Hays Recreation Center. Athletes were to be treated to a banquet and dance Friday evening.
The Hays Arc of Central Plains had five basketball teams competing and a cheerleading team, amounting to approximately 60 athletes and 14 volunteer coaches. Hays High School also had its own basketball team in the tournament.
Hays athlete Kacey Dannels has been competing in the games for the past five years.
“Just being around my friends and stuff,” she said when asked what she most enjoys about the tournament.
The opening ceremonies included the traditional law enforcement torch run, with Hays and Ellis County officers carrying the torch in and assisting Special Olympics athletes as they lit the flame for the 2018 Hays games to the sound of thunderous applause.
Vice-Mayor Henry Schwaller IV welcomed the athletes to town and gave them two charges: Have fun and enjoy Hays.
“We are so excited to have you here. We are proud of the work you’ve done to get here,” he said.
This year’s tournament was divided into two locations due to a growing number of participants, and a desire to reduce travel expenses for teams in the eastern half of the state.
A total of 20 area businesses signed up to sponsor a team by providing assistance and refreshments throughout the tournament. More than 250 volunteers also were needed to help throughout the weekend.
The outpouring of community support is always a highlight of the tournament, said Brent Kaiser, activities director for the Hays Arc.
“Ever since I have been involved in this job, just seeing the city of Hays and the community, how well they’ve supported individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and that support continues to grow,” he said. “It’s a really cool thing."