The Leonard family walked the cool, air-conditioned halls of Lincoln East High School — a brief respite from Friday's oppressive heat.

But even though temperatures rose into the high 90s — with heat indexes surpassing 105 — the family of five was just cooling off before the opening ceremony to kick off the 33rd annual Cornhusker State Games.

Thousands of competitors from across the state paraded around Seacrest Field, while skydivers and mascots entertained the crowd.

"It's become a sort of little Olympics for us," said Bob Leonard, who's competed in the State Games since their inception.

Now his wife and three children have tagged along, competing in events such as track, arm-wrestling and the walk around Holmes Lake.

"It's really turned into this family atmosphere," Bob's wife Cheryl said. "These are sports that you can get involved in even if you're not athletic, and have fun."

Lincoln ultramarathoner Pete Kostelnick, who last year ran across the country in just 42 days, officially began the Games by lighting the cauldron, followed by a fireworks display.

The ceremony signals the beginning of two weeks of competition in more than 60 events.

While some events, such as pickleball and fencing, started Friday, most will kick off Saturday, with 45 different events held at 50 different venues mainly in Lincoln and Omaha.

State Games organizer Dave Mlnarik expects more than 11,000 competitors — nearly 1,000 more than last year — to take part.

With more competitors and higher temps, Mlnarik said safety will be a big concern over the Games' first weekend.

A heat advisory issued by the National Weather Service lasts until 7 p.m. Saturday, with heat indexes from 100 to 105 degrees expected in the afternoon.

To combat the heat, water stations will be available at all sites, with mandatory breaks during competition to give athletes a chance to hydrate.

Medical and safety personnel will also be on standby at each site to spot heat stroke in athletes.

"Whenever and wherever possible, we want our athletes to stay out of the heat," Mlnarik said. "It's just common sense."

Indoor activities at Lincoln East, including the athletes' dinner, allowed ceremony-goers to take a break from the heat before the festivities began at 8 p.m.

The Games added two new sports this year: foot golf and three-on-three basketball.

But Mlnarik said sports such as track, soccer and softball draw the most competitors. 

Jay Jacox, who came out with his wife Corinne to watch their son compete in pickleball, remembers bringing a soccer team to Lincoln in the Games' first year.

"Anybody from anywhere can participate," Jacox said. "It shows that you don't have to be a super athlete to come out and have fun."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7214 or zhammack@journalstar.com

On Twitter @zach_hammack 

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