BILLINGS — On May 14, the 50th annual Special Olympics Montana Summer Games will get under way in Great Falls.
Two thousand athletes are registered with the organization across the Treasure State, able to compete in 18 different sports between summer and winter. But that number could be cut by more than 20 percent if some things don’t change.
Powerlifting is among the struggling events, but there is a passionate group in Billings trying to save it.
“The weight doesn’t care what your abilities are or your non-abilities to do anything are,” said powerlifting coach Nicole Knight. “The weight is completely oblivious to who you are, what kind of day you had.”
There’s no way to fake powerlifting. You can either pick up the weight, or you can’t. The same rules apply to Olympians and Special Olympians alike.
“Powerlifting rules for Special Olympics are very specific, and they do not vary too much from a typical powerlifting meet,” said Knight. “The idea is to make it as close to a typical powerlifting event as we can.”
Knight knows how. She was a longtime competitor, but is now in her 16th year as a coach, specifically for Special Olympics athletes. She began to coach to honor her late sister, who was special needs and who would be immensely proud of the work Nicole has done.
“It’s a big commitment for the coaches – we’re very lucky with Nicole because she’s out here, she’s donating her time,” said Angela Merrin, mother of Special Olympian Chris Merrin. “It’s a lot of commitment, not only for the athletes who come in, but she’s here three nights a week, also.”
And her athletes are thrilled to see her each and every night.
“I love her a lot, like a best friend, like a sister,” said Special Olympian Joey Lucara.
The feeling is mutual — for each other and their sport that is in trouble. Powerlifting is one of four sports Special Olympics Montana is considering eliminating due to a lack of participation.
“I think that there is quite a bit of interest from athletes,” Knight said, “but it requires quite a bit of commitment on all aspects, from the coach, from the athlete, from the athlete’s parents or caregiver.”
“It’s quite a bit of time that he spends,” said Merrin of Chris’ powerlifting routine. “Right now, he’s in the gym at least four days a week doing a formal practice, and then he does work at home or he comes to the gym extra.”
That means time and money, two factors the other sports – gymnastics, equestrian, and kayaking – all have in common. But the biggest problem might be that there just aren’t enough people like Knight.
“The more specific the sport is, the more training you have to do in order coach the sport,” Merrin said. “There’s certain sports that people do more recreationally – it may be easier for them to pick up a bowling ball and teach someone how to bowl versus powerlifting takes training. You need a little bit higher level of training to be able coach it.”
Ironically, that specificity is the reason why Merrin’s son Chris and others have stayed with powerlifting over other sports.
“Chris has been involved in Special Olympics since he was 8,” Merrin said. “Powerlifting is fairly new, he’s been doing it for the last four years. He very much enjoys it. It’s been challenging for him both mentally and physically as he figures out the rules. His endurance has increased and he has lifted more than I thought he ever would be able to.”
Organizers want 30 powerlifters in the Summer Games by next year. The number is hovering in the low 20s right now, so Lucara needs help to keep his life plan on track.
“I’m going to keep going with Special Olympics until I find a girlfriend, get married, then I’m going to retire and come back again,” he said.
We should all be so lucky.
The Special Olympics Montana State Summer Games are May 14-17 in Great Falls.