The True Champions

The hot, bright lights shined directly down on the stage, making it impossible to see into the crowd and find familiar faces. However, as we waited anxiously for the music to start and signal the beginning of our routine, we could hear the chants of our family and friends, “U-S-A, U-S-A” pounding in our ears and helping to inspire the confidence we needed. We had practiced countless hours, perfecting cheers and motions, building our stunts and pyramids, and running the routine over and over again, when “one last time” just didn’t seem to be enough. We were ready for this, our first competition of the season, and we were going to rock it. The music started and my heart skipped a beat, but my brain went into automatic as I performed the routine I had memorized.

The two and half minutes passed quickly and flawlessly as we nailed the choreography and hit all of our stunts. When we hit our ending pose, the crowd erupted in applause and their cheers reverberated throughout the convention center. They rose to their feet, a standing ovation. However, I knew this praise was not for me, and I stepped back to allow the true Champions to be recognized. The girl with cerebral palsy I helped walk across the stage, the tiny little cheerleader with a feeding tube in her stomach whose mother I can see tearing up in the front row, the girl with Downs’ syndrome with a huge smile on her face and all of the other special needs cheerleaders were the ones deserving the recognition. These special needs cheerleaders were the USA Starz Champions Special Needs cheer team, and they were inspiring people.

The USA Starz Champions cheer team was like a family to me, a big, happy family. There were twenty-four of us, twelve were girls with different mental and physical disabilities. The rest of us, the helpers and coaches, were there to make sure things ran smoothly and everyone had the help they needed. Coach Jen was the mother of our little cheer family. She held us all together, took care of everyone, settled differences, and genuinely cared for every one of the special needs girls. She could get frustrated at times, just as any parent would, but she never took it out on anyone and always had a positive outlook. The loving, supportive aunts were Coach Sherry and Coach Paula. They organized all of our family gatherings and outings, the practices, competitions and activities. They choreographed the routine and made the changes needed for the girls to be successful. The helpers, cheerleaders on other teams, were the older siblings. We held hands with the girls when they needed help walking across the mat, or stayed after to teach them how to fly in a stunt that they never thought possible. The girls were the younger siblings, the ones whose innocence and joy for life could not help but make you smile. Each one of them was unique and brought something different into the family. If just one of them was missing, we did not feel complete.

Every special needs child should have an opportunity like the Champions, the progress these girls made was incredible. We watched our younger siblings change drastically for the better over the two seasons, and felt proud and excited for them, like any sibling would. Erica was born prematurely and was the tiniest little girl I had ever seen, but she was the loudest during practice. She had progressed far enough to move out of the special needs team at the end of last year and join girl scouts full time. Even with leg braces, Gracie started out as barely being able to walk. At the end of the second season, she would roam off by herself in the middle of practice and even climb stairs, all without assistance. Bella was terribly shy and would not say anything when she joined, but during the season she would yell the cheer louder than anyone else. If you accidentally brushed up against Annie when she first joined, she would have been a nervous wreck. By the time the last competition rolled around, however, she was giving everyone hugs and showing off her Hannah Montana collection. They each made so much progress and it was evident to anyone that crossed paths with the Champions that this opportunity had been a very positive one. The rest of the family felt proud and excited as the younger members grew and changed for the better.

Not only did this team have a positive impact on the cheerleaders, but it had a major impact on the coaches as well, especially me. Everyone should have the opportunity to work with special needs children at some point in their lives. It creates in you a zest for life, and gives you a new perspective. Each one of those girls inspired me every time I saw them. Brenna had a laugh that was contagious, and you couldn’t help but be happy around her. Ally was never afraid to try something new, and did not let her disability stop her from taking tumbling classes outside of cheer practice. Every single one of the Champions inspired me, but one in particular really impacted me.

The Champions who needed a little extra help were assigned an unofficial helper, and I ended up with Catherine. She had the largest effect on me out of all the cheerleaders, and she really grew to feel like my sister. As a seventeen year old girl with a disease that did not allow her to straighten out her arms and legs, her life was far from easy. She needed help with almost everything: walking across the floor, getting water, going to the bathroom. Despite the setbacks, she never let her disability phase her and always strived and hoped for the best in life. One day, she planned on getting her license, even though it did not seem physically possible. On the cheer mat, she was unstoppable. She was a daredevil, never afraid, and wanted us to put her into higher and higher stunts every time. Catherine knew how to make all of us laugh and kept us entertained during practice. You could have a discussion with her about anything, from boys to AP US History, and you seemed to forget that she had a disability at all. Her immense spirit and positive attitude really made a difference in my life.

Working with girls like that teaches you to not label them with Downs’ syndrome or cerebral palsy, but as girls with immense hearts and spirits, whose laughter could make a whole room smile. Whenever I am feeling down about happenings in my life, or when things do not seem to go my way, I think about the Champions and the smiles on their faces when they were able to get up on stage and perform. They had to overcome so many obstacles, yet they rarely let it negatively affect them. Their spirit and love for life in the face of such adversity and challenge were amazing. The USA Starz Champions really were just that, Champions.





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