BILLINGS — If you’ve been one of the thousands of competitors in the Big Sky State Games over the past 23 years, you owe a big thank you to Karen Sanford Gall.
The State Games began in 1986 with 13 sports. This year, athletes competed in 36 – a rapid rise over the past two decades under executive director Gall. She has been with the organization basically since the beginning, and took over as executive director in 1996. Now 59, she announced Friday that this would be her last Games in charge, stepping down to consulting work by the end of the year. Lianna Susott, currently the assistant director, will take over the lead role in January.
Gall sat down with MTN Sports earlier this month to talk about her 23 years in charge, the changes she’s seen, and some of her favorite memories from State Games past.
MTN Sports: What do you remember about your first Big Sky State Games?
Karen Sanford Gall: “I just thought it was so magical. I mean, it really was magical. Opening ceremonies, it was a perfect night. I really appreciated all the Montanans that came together, and I really fell in love with our commissioners. It was a great, great experience.”
MTN Sports: I know if you win a medal in your event here, you qualify for the National Games, which is pretty cool. Do you see a lot of people taking advantage of that?
Gall: As you can imagine, proximity to us – when it was in Lincoln, Nebraska or Colorado Springs for the national competition, we had a lot of Montanans that did go and attend. This one is in Virginia – where Liberty University is – so it’s not really possible for most of our athlete base, so we really don’t have many going. But usually when it moves closer to us, we go. In California, we had a number of athletes go there as well.
MTN Sports: First year of the State Games was?
MTN Sports: And the torch lighter was?
Gall: Julie Brown.
MTN Sports: Who was, for the younger generation out there?
Gall: She was a fabulous runner. She was in the first marathon ever run in the Olympics, although I feel bad for here – she had food poisoning at it. She was a fabulous runner. For many years, she held the state 800 meter record here in Montana. It was broken by the Aragon girls – I think Dani broke it. But yeah, she was an amazing runner.
MTN Sports: And then you’ve had the likes of Edwin Moses and Jeff Blatnick. Who were some of the Olympians who really pop out and have gripped you?
Gall: Jackie Joyner-Kersee. She was a great one. Edwin Moses as you mentioned. Willie Banks has been fabulous to us with our track camp each year. Dick Fosbury – he’s a delighful man, just a giver. He wants everybody in the world to get over a high jump bar. I think of Eric Bergoust, the Montanan, and I look at the picture we have on our website and my gosh, he could have burnt his hand! He chose to flip with the torch, and that torch has liquid in it, and he poured out all the fuel, and part of it was running down the torch and then he decides to jump. You tip over and it goes down your arm. Well, he didn’t care. He was a real fireball, literally.”
MTN Sports: How many sports were in that first year?
Gall: Well, 12 or 13. I say that because of road race. Road race is generally considered track and field, so I think they counted 12, but it was 13.
MTN Sports: And now you’re up to?
MTN Sports: Do you intentionally try to expand it from year to year? Have you ever lost a sport?
Gall: Oh yes, we’ve lost a couple sports. This year, we’re not doing roller skating, which has come and gone for us, but it may come back. We always hold out, if there’s interest in it and a venue that can host. And if there’s qualified people that can run it – that’s our criteria from the Board of Directors. And then we’re not doing wrestling. Unfortunately, it’s a really off-time for wrestling. We may do it in the future in the winter.
MTN Sports: You’ve spread these State Games out from winter to spring to summer. Talk about the thought process behind that.
Gall: We really try to keep that one weekend, the third weekend in July. But part of it, for example, we used to do ice events in July. And the ice consistency – they were skating on slush. It just wasn’t safe, nor is there any ice down in Billings at that time. Then we wanted to add curling – that was going to be in the winter – so we do those at the tail end of our spring sports, is what we call them. Curling, ice hockey, figure skating. Then we looked at Dance, and during the Games, they’re out of season – they’re not dancing then. So we moved them to the spring. So we have a few spring events, and then the majority of the events all fall the weekend of the Games. We have a few the weekend before, and a few the weekend after.
MTN Sports: What is the Friday night of opening ceremonies like mentally for you?
Gall: Well, it’s a big relief when it’s over – that’s what I have to say. My Games have launched, and then it’s in the commissioners hands – they run the sports. I remember the first year, and the weather was bad and I was so bummed out. But then I said, ‘I can’t control this.’ So try to just manage the things you can control, and weather is certainly not one of them, except for getting people into safety. It can be kind of spotty weather at that time of year.
MTN Sports: Talk about this year’s torch lighter, and you have a couple of camps this year.
Gall: We have Marti Malloy – we’re delighted to have her. She’s a bronze medalist in Judo. We’ve never had any Judo athletes, so that’s cool. Judo is a really strong sport for us, and the Taekwondo folks are really great commissioners, so they helped us get her. She’ll be putting on a camp when their competition is done as well.
MTN Sports: How strong is Big Sky State Games compared to the rest of the United States?
Gall: I think we have a really strong Games because of our commissioners, volunteers, and our sponsors. We have designed a great, great event. There’s some other State Games that are really good in the country. I’ll say Tom run a great Games, and Doug Martin, down in Colorado. Lincoln, Nebraska – the Nebraska Games – are a fabulous Games. Missouri has a good strong games, so there are strong events across the country, but I feel like we run a great Games as well.