FORT LEONARD, Missouri- More than 2,300 participants, joined by Family members, friends and supporters, visited Fort Leonard Wood LEONARD WOOD, Missouri- and the surrounding area over the weekend, as the post served as the host site of the 2017 Special Olympics Missouri State Indoor Games.
“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor and privilege to declare the 2017 Special Olympics Missouri State Indoor Games officially open. Let the games begin!” Col. Tracy Lanier, U.S. Army Garrison Fort Leonard Wood commander, told an audience of thousands inside Davidson Fitness Center Friday night to conclude the opening ceremonies.
Held on Fort Leonard Wood for the third consecutive year, the games included more than 900 bowlers and nearly 200 basketball teams in eight different divisions.
“It’s exciting for me, because it’s our chance to play for the troops,” said Billy Evans, a SOMO player with the Thundering Herd basketball team from Nevada, Missouri, as his team took on the Power Cats from Blue Springs, Missouri, early Saturday at Davidson Fitness Center.
The games began Friday morning, as teams packed Daugherty Bowling Center.
According to SOMO athlete Blake Ross, 14, with the Union, Missouri, Blazers, the best part of competing at the games was two-fold.
“You just get to hang out with your friends, and you get to meet new friends,” Ross said shortly after bowling a strike.
By 9 a.m. Friday, some bowlers were already receiving medals, which took on a new significance this year since, for the first time in State Indoor Games history, teams that earned gold medals could qualify to be a part of a Missouri delegation to the Special Olympics USA Games in 2018.
One of those receiving medals Friday was David Covarrubius, 21, from El Dorado Springs.
“It was really fun,” Covarrubius said when asked what he liked about competing here.
Also having fun were Pvt. Miguel Trevino and Pfc. Johsian Vazquez, both with the 84th Chemical Battalion, who had the honor of presenting medals to the winners of different bowling divisions. They were just two of dozens of Soldiers and Marines who volunteered at the bowling center.
“It always feels nice to help out,” Trevino said.
Later that morning, many athletes played games, constructed crafts and hung out with volunteers at the Victory Village set up inside DFC.
The biggest event of the games was Friday night’s opening ceremony. Athletes were cheered by service members, Family and friends as they entered the fitness center with their teams as they were announced.
A highlight of the ceremony was the arrival of the torch, which was carried by Staff Sgt. Jeramie Larsen, 795th Military Police Battalion, and SOMO athlete Colin Garrison, a member of the Raymore-Peculiar Lady Panthers Unified basketball team.
“This is our third year here at Fort Leonard Wood, and the support that we receive here is unsurpassed,” said Don Spears, Special Olympics Missouri board chairman, in his remarks. Spears then recognized the Soldiers in attendance as a group and thanked them for their service.
Brig. Gen. Kevin Vereen, U.S. Army Military Police School commandant, welcomed the participants to Fort Leonard Wood.
“Thank you for making the effort to be a part of this amazing and inspiring event that touches the lives of so many,” Vereen said. “From the athletes and fans to the hundreds of service members and community members volunteering to support the games, it just shows what an awesome community we have right here, in the heart of America.”
Events on Saturday began with bowling at DBC and basketball at multiple venues. DFC held basketball games on three courts simultaneously throughout the morning and afternoon, while games were also played at Pippin Youth Center and at Cunningham, Swift and Shae gyms on post, as well as Waynesville’s high school, middle school and sixth-grade center.
Later Saturday, SOMO athletes enjoyed bingo at the USO building and attended a dance at Nutter Field House.
The games concluded Sunday with the final day of bowling at DBC.
A ‘fun environment’
Fort Leonard Wood is a favorite venue for many athletes, according to Harrison McLean, SOMO Public Relations and Volunteer
“It’s a really fun environment. Just having all the service members volunteering is a big part of it. All our athletes really love and respect the service members. Many times, they’ll stop and thank them for their service. Our athletes just really admire what they do for our country and what they do for them by volunteering and taking time out of their busy lives.”
The hundreds of volunteers from Fort Leonard Wood and the surrounding area are also key to the success of the games. Approximately 1,000 volunteers took part in this year’s games.
“Our volunteers are awesome,” said Rhonda Hutsell, Fort Leonard Wood Army Volunteer Corps coordinator.
McClean described the level of volunteer support as “phenomenal.”
“We have units from all over the place helping out with bowling and basketball, even helping set up the gyms and doing everything like that,” he said. “They’re doing a lot more than just keeping score. We really couldn’t do it without them. We’ve been beyond impressed.”
The road to the games
Before coming to Fort Leonard Wood, athletes had already competed at two levels to qualify for the State Indoor Games. The six SOMO areas, which include the Kansas City Metro, St. Louis Metro, North, Central, Southwest and Southeast areas, held basketball and bowling competitions in the fall, followed by three regional competitions held in February.
The State Indoor Games were first held on Fort Leonard Wood in 2015, after SOMO separated bowling and basketball competitions from its annual summer games. The move allowed SOMO athletes to compete in more individual sports throughout the year.
‘Just a big Family’
McClean said events like the State Indoor Games are important, not only because they give athletes a place to compete, but also provide them with an opportunity to reunite with fellow competitors statewide.
“The thing I like the most is just seeing our athletes compete and seeing the community that they form,” McClean said. “It’s so much more than just getting them out of the house to go bowling or play basketball. All their best friends are here. They get to see people from other areas, including some they only get to see at state competitions, so they’re excited to see each other. It’s just a big Family, pretty much, and it’s great to see our athletes just be happy and compete. They do this in the spirit of competition, but anyone who’s involved with this knows it’s so much more than that.”
(Editor’s note: Dawn Arden with the Public Affairs Office contributed to this story.)