BILLINGS - For 34 years, the Big Sky State Games have been a staple of summer in Billings, and they continue to grow, thanks to a year-round commitment from a tireless organization. But the 35th edition will feel a little emptier - without the Games' longtime captain.
Executive Director Karen Sanford Gall retired at the end of December after 30 years. She says she'll enjoy the extra free time but will miss so much of what she's built.
"I'm most proud of relationships established. That will be hard to say goodbye to all the people who have done so many good things for the Games," Sanford Gall said, fighting back tears.
When she started, the Games offered 12 sports. Today, more than 10,000 athletes compete in 37 different events. But what Sanford Gall is most proud of are the year-round programs that have taken off.
"We've grown in purpose - we're not just a sports festival. We've become a healthy lifestyle program and that's what we really believe in," Sanford Gall said. "We added Shape Up Montana, Big Sky Fit Kids, our elementary school cross country race."
"Our Yellowstone Elementary School Cross Country meet has been really important to our organization," added new executive director Liana Susott. "We impact about 1,000 kids and it's free."
Events like that are why Susott is stepping into Sanford Gall's shoes.
"I started as an intern 20 years ago and that wasn't the end goal," Susott said, "but I became the sports director, and then the assistant director, and I thought, 'You know, Karen's been a great mentor, and a great leader, and I really want to be like her.'"
She's had a year to learn everything Sanford Gall does for the Big Sky State Games, a list that surprised even Susott.
"There's a lot of things I was like, 'Oh wow, I didn't know you did that,'" Susott said. "And then all these little details, so it's been really good for me to learn, because it's going to be something I haven't done before."
But Sanford Gall says she has no doubt the Games are in good hands.
"It was hard at first to put my mind around it to say goodbye, but I'm ready to go on and they're ready to be without me, for sure," she said. "I feel like it was time. It was time for new ideas. It's been the greatest joy of my life though, being part of this."
Sanford Gall will stay on as a consultant, but she jokes that it's mostly just to reassure her Board of Directors.