Baton Rouge, LA (NBC33) — More than 600 people traveled to Baton Rouge for the Special Olympics Louisiana 2013 State Indoor Games.
The travelers are good for the local economy, but it is the kind of event in which everyone benefits.
At the opening ceremony, Special Olympians from around Louisiana paraded in with their arms held high, excited about the opportunity to play for state championships.
"A lot of them have trained long and hard," said Pat Carpenter-Bourgeois, President and CEO of Special Olympics Louisiana, "and they're so excited, because this is the Olympic Games for them."
"It's the most important thing," agreed basketball player Steven Tookes, who traveled from Ringgold to compete. "And I'm just happy to be here and have a good time."
The state indoor games is is the biggest event of the winter for the Special Olympics, with nearly 700 athletes competing in basketball, bowling, and tennis.
Many of the athletes sign up because they want the friendship that comes with being part of the Special Olympics movement.
"Just seeing new people, getting to interact with other people, and just meet new friends and stuff," Tookes said.
But it also provided rare opportunities for Tookes to represent his state.
"Got to also play in the All-Star (Weekend), basketball, in Houston," he said. "Got to see the basketball players, interact with them, talk to them, and play with them. And they were just friendly to me, though. I was like a part of their family, or something."
In addition to the competitors, there are close to a thousand volunteers taking part as coaches, referees, and making sure the Games run as planned.
"Cause when people hear that Special Olympics is looking for volunteers," said Carpenter-Bourgeois, "you usually don't have to beg them to come."
Les Miles was among the people who wanted to give back, and he was named an honorary coach. He was joined by other special guests Friday night, including Joe Alleva, LSU's athletic director, Mike Reitz, the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield Louisiana, and Col. Mike Edmonson of the Louisiana State Police.
Law enforcement agencies have always been important to Special Olympics' success, whether as torch-bearers or through their fundraising efforts.
"Last year, they raised $40 million for Special Olympics worldwide," Carpenter-Bourgeois stated. "Here in Louisiana, they raise on average about $250,000."
Lots of volunteers return year after year.
"They come to our program hoping that they're going to be able to help our athletes," said Carpenter-Bourgeois. "And they realize that they are the one that has been helped.
"They realize that our athletes are more like them than they are different. And many true friendships have been formed in Special Olympics as a result of what we're doing."
Each athlete had to qualify for the state games by winning at the local level, and they are focused on winning gold. But even Tookes strategy on the court reflects the spirit of the Games.
"I make myself make everybody else better," he said.
Competition begins Saturday morning and continues through Sunday afternoon. Bowling will take place at Circle Lanes on Florida Blvd. and All Star lanes on Airline Hwy. Basketball games will be played at LSU's student recreation center, while tennis matches will be held at Independence Park.
To learn more about competing or volunteer with Special Olympics, visit www.laso.org , or call (800) 345-6644.