About 1,200 athletes in gymnastics, volleyball, tennis, and track and field will put their skills on display at new venues.
When it comes to landing marquee events, the Stillwater area seems to be on a roll.
Its latest big catch is the Special Olympics Minnesota Summer Games, which this year has moved from its longtime home at the University of Minnesota to Stillwater Area High School.
The games are the biggest event of the season for the 1,200 athletes -- children and adults with intellectual disabilities -- from all corners of the state who will participate in track and field events, gymnastics, tennis and volleyball Thursday through Saturday, said Lynn Shelander, senior manager of marketing and communication for Special Olympics Minnesota. And athletes, coaches, volunteers and spectators will receive the gold medal treatment from scores of volunteers and representatives from the Greater Stillwater Chamber of Commerce, the Stillwater Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Stillwater Area Public Schools.
They have lined up a barbershop quartet to sing at Friday's celebration ceremonies, arranged for St. Croix River cruises for athletes and coaches, stuffed more than 3,100 welcome bags, and will offer free trolley services on Friday to shuttle participants and fans between competition venues and downtown Stillwater.
"Everybody is involved in making this a success," said Barb Trueman, marketing representative for the Stillwater Convention and Visitors Bureau. "We hope they will choose Stillwater again to hold their event."
The games arrive just a week after the Nature Valley Grand Prix professional bicycle race, which ends Sunday in downtown Stillwater.
Special Olympics Minnesota had been looking for a new home for the games, which have been staged annually since the 1970s. Shelander said a change in the track surface at the University of Minnesota prompted officials to seek a new site. While Special Olympics enjoyed its relationship with the university, Shelander said, athletes and fans couldn't move easily from one event to the other.
With that news, Stillwater Area Public Schools put in a proposal to host this year's games. The school at 5701 Stillwater Blvd. in Oak Park Heights has a stadium, gymnasium, track and free parking. It also has held large events in the past, including the Minnesota State High School True Team Track meets.
"Our grounds are amenable to those kinds of events," said Lori Brink, the school district's director of community education. "As a school district, we look for ways to be an asset to the local community. We felt like this was a good event to bring into the community and embrace."
For the athletes, said Shelander, moving to Stillwater brings a more intimate environment for the athletes. In addition, the move might give the St. Croix Valley Lumberjacks a home-turf advantage, to say nothing of drawing some attention to the club. The Lumberjacks formed in 2000 with 15 athletes and 10 coaches. The club now has 180 athletes, eight of whom have participated in the World Games. About 30 will participate in track and field events.
"It is exciting to have the Summer Games in Stillwater this year," said Karen Crotty, head of the Special Olympics Stillwater delegation and the Lumberjacks. "Many of our athletes are students or graduates of Stillwater Area High School and we are hoping to see many family and friends that may not otherwise be able to attend. When athletes look into the stands, they may recognize those cheering for them and see signs of acceptance, which may sometimes be lacking in their lives."
Like most of the athletes who participate next weekend, members of the Lumberjacks began weekly practices in April and training on their own, lifting weights and even running marathons, Crotty said. They also were involved in fundraisers to earn money to buy new uniforms for the Games.
With everything in one place -- except gymnastics, which will be held nearby -- fans, athletes and coaches can gather in the Olympic Town near the tennis courts to enjoy games, food and music, and to buy merchandise. A Healthy Athletes Village featuring free health screenings will be open in the school's west parking lot.
"We are eager to see what the outcome will be," Shelander said. "With a new venue and new format, you wonder how it will go. We are anxious and optimistic."
Tim Harlow • 651-925-5039 Twitter: @timstrib