More than 3,000 athletes celebrate beginning of Special Olympics State Summer Games at opening ceremony

The Flame of Hope waits to be lit during the opening ceremony for Special Olympics summer games May 30 in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

As soon as five o'clock hit on Thursday, May 30, the residence halls that had been bustling for the first time in three weeks quickly emptied again. 

Hundreds of Special Olympics athletes and volunteers in brightly-colored shirts flooded out of the lobbies to jump on school buses on their way to Kelly/Shorts Stadium. 

Other groups decided to walk to the stadium. Members of the Michigan National Guard stood at every crosswalk with hand-held stop signs, making sure the crowds safely made it across Broomfield Street.

Athletes from each region, which SOMI refers to as areas, gathered in front of the gates to the stadium. Each one had a unique t-shirt, which helped chaperones and spectators identify their area. Groups of people in purple, orange, red, green and yellow t-shirts flooded into the north entrance of the stadium.

From left to right, junior tight end Tony Poljan, junior linebacker Nick Masztak and senior quarterback Quinten Dormady greet athletes during the opening ceremony May 30 in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

The ramp on the north end of the stadium was lined on both sides with Michigan Knights of Columbus in full uniform, along with dozens of law enforcement officers. At the bottom of the ramp, the line continued with volunteers and college athletes holding their hands out for high fives.

Included in the lineup were Central Michigan volleyball and football players, along with Michigan State cheerleaders.

As athletes went down the line, giving high fives and hugs to everyone in it, they rounded the corner of the football field and walked toward the stage on the east edge of the turf. Each area gathered at a designated spot on the field, where they stayed before and during the ceremony.

A Special Olympics athlete from Area 2 does a headstand at the Michigan State Summer Games Opening Ceremony in Kelly/Shorts Stadium on May 30.

Before the ceremony officially began, music played on the field and the athletes danced like no one was watching. During "24K Magic" by Bruno Mars and "Cupid Shuffle" by Cupid, athletes formed dance circles, staged dance-offs, and began doing "the worm."

The athletes who weren't dancing introduced themselves to athletes from other areas; many of them carried markers and had their new friends sign their t-shirts.

The time before the ceremony began served as a family reunion - a 3,000-person family. Many of the athletes from different areas only see each other at the Summer Games, so they used the time to catch up from last year. 

The ceremony began at precisely 6:15 p.m. with an introduction from WXYZ morning team anchor and longtime supporter of SOMI, Ann Marie LaFlamme. She thanked SOMI's many sponsors and announced each area in the parade.

"This is my favorite time of year," LaFlamme said. "This is part of our worldwide, nationwide movement that promotes respect, acceptance, dignity, inclusion and, of course, unity that is changing people's perspectives."

The parade, which was led by Grand Marshal Don Stabenow, included law enforcement officers, members of the Michigan Knights of Columbus, and representatives from each Special Olympics area. As LaFlamme announced each area, the athletes on the field competed to see who could cheer the loudest. Area 16 from Kalamazoo and Calhoun appeared to win the unofficial competition.

The entire day had been cloudy, but the sun came out just in time for the opening ceremony. WZZM anchor Juliet Dragos noted this in her speech.

"Were any of you worried it might rain tonight," she asked. "I wasn't. The sun always comes out for you guys."

Dragos introduced SOMI's most notable donors: SpartanNash and the Michigan Knights of Columbus. SpartanNash presented a check for $165,000 at the opening ceremony, and the Knights of Columbus presented a check for $10,000.

Two officials were celebrating their first year at Summer Games. Timothy Hileman, who became president and CEO of SOMI just ten months ago, shared his excitement about Special Olympics and the Summer Games. Central Michigan University President Bob Davies was also celebrating his first Summer Games.

"At CMU, we are also all about inclusion and acceptance," Davies said. "Thank you for honoring that pride."

The opening ceremony torch is carried up the stairs of Kelly/Shorts Stadium to start the Special Olympics May 30 in Kelly/Shorts Stadium.

The ceremony concluded with the Law Enforcement Torch Run. The Torch of Hope was lit at 10 a.m. at the State Capital Building in Lansing, and law enforcement officers ran it relay-style from Lansing to Mount Pleasant. When it finally arrived at Kelly/Shorts Stadium, the officers passed the torch off to several Special Olympics athletes. The final athlete, who brought the torch to the top of the stadium to light the Gauntlet, was Area 11's Jacqui Bunt. Bunt was named last year's Inspirational Athlete of the year. This year's winner will be announced during the closing ceremony May 31.

After the torch was brought to the top of the stadium, the Summer Games officially began. At the conclusion of the ceremony, music played on the speakers again with the Special Olympics unofficial anthem: "Who Let the Dogs Out." 

Competition begins at 8 a.m. Friday, May 31 at multiple sports venues on CMU's campus. A full schedule is available on the SOMI website. The closing ceremony will be at 7 p.m. Friday, May 31 in Kelly/Shorts Stadium, followed by the victory dance party.