Brianna Steele is competing in her third straight Empire State Games this week. If she has her way, that's just the start.
"I want to go to the Empire State Games until I'm 80," said a smiling Steele, a recent grad of Newfane High who has won two straight golds in the heptathlon. "I have so much fun and make so many friends at the Empire Games."
Steele, who will compete in the open division this year before heading off to the University of Tulsa on a track scholarship, was selected to lead the Western contingent into Wednesday night's opening ceremonies of the 30th Games at Kensico Dam Plaza.
"The people at the Games always get you riled up," said Steele, who held Western's red and blue signpost aloft in front of the contingent hailing from Buffalo, Rochester and stretching to the Southern Tier and Corning. "They do a great job with the Empire Games -- they make it like the Olympics and it's something athletes really care about."
Westchester County's debut as Games host began with the traditional parade of athletes and lighting of the torch and welcoming words from Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer and ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap.
Kensico Dam Park, called the "Central Park of Westchester County" in remarks by Westchester County Executive Andy Spano, hosted a unique opening ceremony on its version of the Central Park's "Great Lawn."
The huge, 300-feet high stone-faced dam (which holds back the water supply of New York City, 15 miles to the south) was the backdrop to the stage. Temporary bleachers were set up in front of tree-lined sides and on the lawn itself, with the about 6,000 participants entered the ceremonies by walked between the bleachers and under an arch of red, white and blue balloons.
Spitzer paid tribute to former Gov. Hugh L. Carey, who founded the Games, as well as the amateur spirit of the four-day, 26-sport competition.
"The true essence of sport is found here," said Spitzer, who became the first governor to attend opening ceremonies since Gov. George Pataki attended the 2002 Games in Syracuse. "You're here for one reason and only one reason: the love of the game. You represent the best in New York and the best in amateur athletics."
Schapp celebrated New York State's sporting heritage and pointed to the Games as a positive in the world of sports in which major professional leagues are currently suffering through scandals.
"With all the bad news, sometimes it's easy to forget there is so much to celebrate," said Schapp, who first became familiar with the Games as a Cornell student when Ithaca played host. "Sports can show the best of the human spirit, and that's what these Games are all about."
Wrestler Jeff Mye of Lockport was part of the torch relay that was finished off by New York City track and field's Anthony Kurtin and women's basketball player Lisa Flooks of White Plains, part of the host Hudson Valley region.
Competition begins today at sites throughout the county. Western is aiming to lead the medal count for the 27th time in 30 Games.
The men's scholastic volleyball team is aiming to extend its gold-medal streak to 12.
Joe Ziegler, who coaches the Frontier junior varsity and with the Eden Volleyball Club, is in his first year as an ESG coach; he had been a part of opening ceremonies as an athletes in basketball in the mid-1990s.
"As a kid, you're socializing and you might not realize what's going on," said Ziegler. "As a coach, you get a sense of how big a deal it really is."