Special Olympics CEO says change in Winter Games should serve more athletes

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Whitefish’s Hallie Schelling races ahead during the 50m snowshoe sprint at the Montana Special Olympics Monday at Whitefish Mountain Resort.

Special Olympics Montana hopes creating regional winter games will result in it serving more athletes in the state.

The organization recently announced that it would not be holding its 2018 State Winter Games in Whitefish, but would move to a model involving regional games. Whitefish Mountain Resort will still host a smaller regional competition on Monday, March 5.

Bob Norbie, president and CEO of Special Olympics Montana, told the Pilot on Wednesday that the decision was made in an effort to ensure athletes are being served the best they can through the games.

“Area winter games will continue around the state,” Norbie said. “Athletes won’t be absent the competition. Our intent is to create more competition.”

The 2017 games held in March marked 22 consecutive years with Whitefish serving as host. In 2016, there were 2,966 athletes who participated in the games, according to SOMT.

Norbie pointed out that two-thirds of the athletes competing in the winter state games in Whitefish reside in the Flathead Valley. He said athletes in places like Bozeman were foregoing competing in Whitefish because of the distance to travel to the games, and the unpredictable weather during the winter.

“We have many people waiting on the sidelines to get involved,” he said.

SOMT has already implemented a similar model with its summer games by moving to regional competitions rather than a statewide event, and its a move that organizers say has improved opportunity for athletes.

Riley Polumbus, Whitefish Mountain Resort spokesperson, said the resort will still host the regional games noting that the event is a “big deal to us.”

“Whitefish will still host one day of competition,” she said. “We expect to have 375 athletes here.”

Polumbus said resort staff is meeting to figure out exactly what the new games will look like, but she expects them to include one day of competition and medal ceremonies. Alpine skiing and snowshoeing is expected to take place on the mountain, and cross-country skiing competitions may happen in Whitefish, she noted.

The re-organization was prompted by significant growth and expansion of SOMT over the past decade. Norbie said athlete numbers were outpacing SOMT capacity — fans and funds — to serve athletes under the current model.

“We’ve just been experiencing growth and are our athlete numbers were outpacing what we could handle,” Norbie said. “That forced us to rethink how we go about running the games and how we could do much better for our athletes.”

SOMT is looking at a model that would allow athletes to compete in regional games before heading to future state games, then to USA games, and from there to qualify for global games.

Norbie said people with intellectual disabilities make up about 2 to 3 percent of the state population, translating to about 20,000 to 30,000 individuals.

Special Olympics Montana is a statewide nonprofit organization that provides year-round sports training, athletic competition, and health-related programming for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

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