By Mr. Matt Decker (Fort Leonard Wood GUIDON)March 24, 2016
FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. (March 24, 2016) -- More than 2,200 athletes and coaches and an additional 1,600 Family members and supporters visited the Fort Leonard Wood area over the weekend as the post and Waynesville High School hosted the 2016 Special Olympics-Missouri State Indoor Games Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
"We have 1,400 bowlers and 170 basketball teams from all over the state," said Brandon Schatsiek, public relations manager for Special Olympics-Missouri.
This was the second consecutive year for Fort Leonard Wood and the surrounding area to host the Indoor Games, something Schatsiek said many athletes have looked forward to all year long.
"They enjoy the service-members, the support and the volunteers we get at the fort," Schatsiek said. "It's been a great partnership since two years ago, when we first started getting the ball rolling for last year's inaugural Indoor State Games."
Events began at 8 a.m. Friday at Daugherty Bowling Center, where hundreds of bowlers began the three-day competition on the center's 40 lanes.
"Look! I did it!" athlete Samijo Gillespie shouted to a friend after she picked up a spare in the sixth frame of her opening game. Gillespie, from the Lincoln County R-3 School District in Troy, Missouri, also got a high-five from one of more than 40 members of the U.S. Marine Corps Detachment who volunteered their time at the bowling center.
The games brought out new and experienced volunteers, such as Chaplain (Capt.) Keith Ferrell with the 58th Transportation Battalion. Ferrell, who has been involved with Special Olympics for several years, coordinated volunteers at DBC on Friday, then helped out with basketball games at Waynesville High School on Saturday.
When asked what he felt was the most rewarding aspect of volunteering, Ferrell didn't hesitate. "It's the look on the athletes' faces," Ferrell said. "The way they compete, help each other and love each other. They compete hard, but they do it in a way that shows what beautiful people they are."
Keith Stoltenow, a military retiree who volunteered with his wife, Janice, after reading an article about the games in the GUIDON, said he would recommend volunteering to others, "in a heartbeat."
"It's great to visit with the athletes, see them compete and see them have so much fun," he said.
Meanwhile, at Davidson Fitness Center, volunteers set up Victory Village, where athletes could engage in a variety of activities, such as lawn games, music and crafts and participate in free health screenings as part of Special Olympics' Healthy Athletes Program.
That evening, the games' opening ceremony took place inside the DFC gym. Athletes, coaches, parents, volunteers, service members and supporters filled the gymnasium for the event.
"We had about 3,000 people in there, which was more than we expected," said Willie Short, the Recreation, Fitness and Aquatics director for Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation. "It was really something to see."
Athletes received high-fives from a throng of service members as they entered the gym. Mindy Hesterly, of Republic, Missouri, said the entrance made a distinct impression on her son, Riley, who was competing in the games.
"He's over the moon, he's really excited about it being here," Hesterly said. "He loved running through all of the troops on the way in, which was super cool."
Maj. Gen. Kent Savre, Maneuver Support Center of Excellence and Fort Leonard Wood commanding general, welcomed the competitors to the post.
"Special Olympics is really an outstanding organization that transforms lives through the joy of sports," Savre told the crowd. "They are the world's largest sports organization with nearly 4 million athletes in more than 170 countries around the world, and it's certainly an extremely positive and influential organization. I'd like to thank the Special Olympics Missouri team and our team of teams here at Fort Leonard Wood for all the hard work and the dedication over the past few months as we planned and coordinated this year's games. Your efforts are greatly appreciated."
On Saturday, events included bowling at DBC and basketball at several of Fort Leonard Wood's gymnasiums and at Waynesville High School, which also held a "Pee Wee Plunge" for young children in a miniature version of SOMO's annual "Polar Plunge."
Competition was fierce on the basketball courts at DFC, where teams filtered in and out as they played games throughout the day.
At Swift Gym, Soldiers cheered on players from the Nevada, Missouri, Thundering Herd and the Gray Wolf Pack from Cape Girardeau, Missouri.
"We've been out here all morning, cheering. We've had a blast," said Staff Sgt. Tim Murphy, Company E, 701st Military Police Battalion.
Coaches from both teams said the State Indoor Games was a significant event for their players.
"Most of my guys are in their early 30s," said Stan Smith, coach of the Gray Wolf Pack. "They love it. It's been a good game, and we had a great opening ceremony last night."
Tracy Bybee, assistant coach of the Thundering Herd, said the opportunity to play in the State Indoor Games gave the entire team a sense of achievement.
"They had to win their regionals just to get here -- they earned it," Bybee said, noting that his team was 5-1 walking into Saturday's game.
On Saturday evening, competitors had a chance to help shape the future of the State Indoor Games during the Athlete Input Council. The hour-long session let athletes give their feedback about things they liked about this years' games and improvements they would like to see in the future.
The 2016 games concluded Sunday at DBC with the completion of the bowling tournament.
The State Indoor Games is still a relatively new event. Schatsiek explained that the bowling and basketball competitions were previously a part of SOMO's summer games.
"There was a rule in place that athletes could only participate in one individual sport and one team sport, and many athletes had to pick which sports they wanted to play," Schatsiek said. "We were seeing bowling and basketball take up all our athletes, while the numbers for our other sports was kind of low. So, we decided to break out bowling and basketball and give it a state competition of its own. This now allows our athletes to compete in as many sports as possible."
(Editor's note: Dawn Arden, Public Affairs specialist, contributed to this story.)