Father and Son Duo Receive Coach & Athlete of the Year Honors

The mantra of the Whitefish Thunder is “Do the right thing, for the right reason, with the right heart.” Special Olympics athletes from the Whitefish area have seen that mantra lived out by coach Kent Morrison. It’s just one of many reasons Kent was awarded the 2022 Distinguished Service Award for Coach of the Year by Special Olympics Montana.

For nearly 25 years, Morrison has been involved with Special Olympics with his son and athlete, Kyler. As a coach, he believes in giving each athlete the best chance for success and focuses on athletes’ personal bests—not just winning medals.

“One of the philosophies that we’ve had as a team is that no matter who comes into our program, they have a God-given potential. Our function as coaches is to help each athlete achieve the potential that they have. And so that means that we have to develop different strategies for the athletes,” according to Coach Morrison.

Kent’s son, Kyler Morrison, has been on the receiving end of that coaching and support as an athlete. Kyler has been awarded the 2022 Distinguished Service Award for Athlete of the Year by Special Olympics Montana, a

recognition that surprised Kyler.

“I felt that it was amazing that I got it. I do all this for fun and to keep busy, but I feel like the award is a bonus.”

Kyler became involved with Special Olympics at age 11 when his teachers directed him to the organization. He literally jumped in with both feet because his first experience with Special Olympics was participating in the Penguin Plunge (one of Montana’s Polar Plunges sponsored by the Law Enforcement Torch Run for the benefit of Special Olympics). Having completed more than 20 plunges, Kyler has raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Glacier Area and his team, Whitefish Thunder. The recent 2023 Penguin Plunge marked his 23rd Polar Plunge.

Kyler is quick to tell anyone that it’s not all about the sports.

“Special Olympics has given me opportunities to be myself. It’s about making contacts, being yourself, and fitting in with different crowds.”

Kyler is a determined athlete who trains hard, plays hard and roots even harder for his teammates. In addition to sports competition, Kyler is a mentor to and advocate for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

He shared a story about a Special Olympics athlete he competed against at a bowling event. The athlete had gutter ball after gutter ball, but at one point he got 5 pins down.

Above, Kyler Morrison readies for a pass during a game at the 2022 State Basketball Tournament in Butte.

“The crowd went wild, like he had just beaten Albert Einstein on a math test or become President! I talked to someone who told me, ‘this kid will remember this for life.’ I want to help others accomplish things–big or small. Whatever it is, it’s big for them.”

That helpful characteristic was evident years ago when Kyler saw the challenge of transferring from a Special Olympics school team to an adult team. Kyler decided Whitefish needed its own adult team. Kyler took his idea to the Whitefish Rotary Club which agreed to provide $1,000 for startup costs of an adult team.

Ever the passionate advocate, Kyler even got seven Rotarians to volunteer as coaches!

The Thunder team was launched and remains Whitefish’s first and only Special Olympics independent adult team.

Understanding that inclusion depends upon knowledge, awareness, and understanding, Kyler wanted a way to recognize individuals with disabilities. In 2011 Kyler and his father, Kent, worked with the Montana State Legislature to establish the Montanans with Developmental Disabilities Week.

Now, every second week of May is dedicated to classroom instructional time highlighting all-inclusive activities.