An estimated 900 athletes and coaches will descend on Hays on Friday morning for the opening ceremonies of the Special Olympics Kansas Basketball and Cheerleading Tournament.
The opening ceremony will be at 10 a.m. Friday at Gross Memorial Coliseum, with games beginning at 12:30 p.m. A total of 65 western Kansas teams are expected to compete in Hays, with the statewide tournament expanding this year to a second location in Topeka a week later.
The change is because the Special Olympics program has seen significant growth in the number of participating athletes, said Kathy McAdoo, executive director of the Arc of Central Plains, 600 Main.
“It truly had become so big that it was easier for them to manage it in two locations,” McAdoo said. “Speaking for us, we have added at least one team this year, possibly two. Our program is growing, and so you can kind of say, ‘OK, if that one’s growing, it may be the trend.’ ”
It’s also hoped adding a second location will reduce travel expenses for athletes on the eastern side of the state, and thus make it possible for more families to participate.
The Hays Arc will have five basketball teams competing and a cheerleading team, amounting to approximately 60 athletes and 14 volunteer coaches. Hays High School also has its own basketball team that will be competing.
Special Olympics Kansas has requested more than 250 volunteers to assist with the event, and additional volunteers are needed. Those willing to help can sign up online at ksso.org/volunteer.
“We have seen a pretty large growth in a lot of our different sports, not just basketball, but we saw a growth of about 10 people this year compared to last year in basketball,” said Brent Kaiser, activities director for Arc of Central Plains. “It’s been like that across the board. I think part of the reason for that is just because of the visibility now of Special Olympics and there’s been a national push in the area of Special Olympics.”
Approximately 20 local businesses also have signed up to sponsor teams by assisting with check-in, providing refreshments and cheering the athletes on, said Melissa Dixon with the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The tournament also is expected to have a significant economic impact on the city. Even with a second location added, an estimated 900 athletes and coaches will participate in the Hays event.
“The hotels are having a good spring,” Dixon said, referring to several consecutive sports tournaments in Hays, also including state wrestling and basketball.
Organizers agree the community support shown to Special Olympics athletes is one of the event’s greatest highlights.
“We’re so grateful that we have a community that has that generous spirit to support these athletes,” Dixon said. “Everybody who gets involved in this event talks about how rewarding it is and that they love participating.”
The event also is a source of much excitement for the athletes, who begin practicing months in advance and eagerly look forward to the tournament. Most of the local athletes compete in multiple sports, beginning practice for one season as soon as the other ends, Kaiser said.
“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.”