A magical night for athletes at the Special Olympics opening ceremony began a few minutes before 7 p.m. on Thursday.
Bagpipes started to play on the floor of Hilton Coliseum as a small crowd of guests filed in. There were only a few sections set up for guests due to the large amount of participants in the Special Olympics Iowa (in the 50th anniversary year of the inaugural Special Olympics Summer Games in Chicago, Illinois), but the crowd made up for somewhat light numbers with loud cheers throughout the evening.
As the Ames chapter of Knights of Columbus formed a lane for the athletes and coaches to march through, "We Are The Champions" played over the Hilton PA system, setting the celebratory tone for the rest of the ceremony.
Athletes from all corners of the state filed in, filling up the sides of the Coliseum and dancing all the way to their seats, taking in the moment. By the time every athlete was sat down, John Kliegl, President of the Special Olympics Iowa, had begun the ceremony.
Sage Holmes sang the national anthem, followed by another young athlete leading the crowd in prayer. Then, the awards started to flow.
Kliegl, at times overwhelmed with emotion while describing the night's honorees, shone a light on the family atmosphere that Special Olympics has cultivated as it reaches a 34th year in Ames.
Mike Harmes of Scott County gave the athletes speech on the night. He encouraged the athletes in the building to cheer for themselves, and wasn't without a good sense of humor.
"I've been participating for 29 years. I have won gold, silver, and bronze medals," Harmes said. "I like gold medals the best."
The Knights of Columbus Award, the highest volunteer honor given by the Special Olympics Iowa, was awarded to Mary Buscher of Ankeny, Iowa.
Buscher said that she was "honored to be in [the athletes'] presence" and wanted everyone in the stands to know "how loved you are."
The Family of the Year Award was given to the Reeg-Beckner family of Sioux City, Iowa. J.J., the youngest family member, competes in unified bowling for West High School, a team under the tutelage of longtime coach Dee Sturgeon. J.J. will head to Seattle with his bowling team in the summer for the 12th USA Summer Olympic Games.
Volunteer of the Year Award winner, Harvey Pennington, gave a short speech that got one of the loudest cheers of the night.
"The reason I'm here is because I love you all, and I feel that love back from you all," Pennington said.
After the Athlete of the Year award winners were recognized, there was one more thing to do before the torch was lit: Give out the 50th Year Anniversary Award, given to Ray Strekal and Nancy Shannon.
After the torch was set aflame and the Special Olympics pledge was recited, Kliegl declared the 2018 Special Olympics Iowa Summer Games open.
Confetti was everywhere, and on a night like this one, deservedly so.