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More than 600 athletes, over 500 volunteers, and many more supporters and partners crowded into the Butte Civic Center Thursday night for the opening ceremonies of the 2019 Special Olympics Montana State Basketball Tournament.

The games, which take place Friday and Saturday, are sure to bring spirited competition to the Mining City. But for the athletes, coaches and supporters who attended Thursday’s opening ceremonies the tournament means much more than winning or losing.

Lloyd Larson is one of the coaches who attended Thursday night. A coach for the Billings Schools team, Larson has been coaching for about six years and he says what brought him to coaching is his son Lance, who is one of the team’s athletes.

“It means quite a bit to me,” said Larson when asked about the significance of the games. After each competition, he said, he walks away with a “warm feeling.”

Warm feelings were certainly abound Thursday as the tournament’s 43 teams paraded into the Civic Center’s arena in a procession, each carrying a large sign to represent their name.

As the teams entered to the sounds of rock and techno songs, the signs could be seen bobbing up and down while athletes walked and danced, shaking metallic-red pompoms as they made their way.

Anna Vanderwende and Rebecca Marie Lockie of the adult team Bozeman Outreach Bobcats were two particularly energetic athletes, who weren’t afraid to show off their dance moves.

The two danced around the “Hey Song” — which is actually titled “Rock and Roll” — along with “Old Town Road.”

Lockie said she has been competing in various sports in the Special Olympics since she was eight years old.

“I can’t wait,” she said, when asked whether she’s looking forward to the competition.

“My favorite part is coming up later — finding out who’s athlete of the year,” she said, referring the awards portion of the opening ceremony.

Vanderwende, meanwhile, said she was looking forward to the weekend’s tournament especially because basketball happens to be her favorite sport.

“It’s great because you get to see your friends that you only get to see during the Special Olympics’ season, as well as compete against different people — and just be yourself,” she said. “And you don’t have to worry about what others think about you because everyone’s kind of like you in different ways.”

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Behind stage, Cindy Ruffner, Special Olympics local program coordinator and administrative assistant for Butte BSW Inc., helped BSW clients line up for the parade of athletes.

While the BSW team awaited their turn to enter the auditorium, she told The Montana Standard that participating in the Special Olympics is something that her clients look forward to.

“It’s so much fun from start to finish,” said Ruffner, describing the games. “The opening ceremonies is big excitement of course.”

BSW client Belinda Muth, meanwhile, will compete in the individual skills portion of the tournament.

“I like it,” said Muth, describing the event. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Among the night’s speakers was Montana Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney, who pumped up the crowd with a particularly spirited speech.

“Hello athletes…. Are you having fun?” asked Cooney, eliciting a roaring cheer from the crowd.

“The next few days are sure to be filled with inspiring moments and unforgettable memories for the athletes, volunteers, family members and the whole community of Butte, Montana,” said Cooney. “Tonight and throughout the games we truly are part of something special.”

Next up was the presentation of the American Flag by law enforcement, followed by the National Anthem, sung by Butte High Student Catherine Russo, who recently qualified for the 2020 Olympic Trials.

Also speaking Thursday Night was Rhonda McCarthy, Special Olympics Montana chief executive officer, who told athletes that they weren’t alone in their love for the games.

“Tonight we are around Butte, America and the greater community, who has given us what I would describe as a grand welcome,” said McCarthy.

Thursday’s ceremony also saw the handing out of the Olympics’ 2019 Spirit Awards, which went to Bozeman Flames coach Dalla Skinner, who won Coach of the Year, Billings police officer Tina Hoeger, who was recognized for her volunteerism and previous years bearing the games’ “Flame of Hope,” and Kandi Christophersen of the Billings’ adult team, who won Athlete of the Year.

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