The opening ceremony for the 2018 Special Olympics USA Games, which took place in Seattle, Washington, last week, featured the traditional parade of athletes, the lighting of the cauldron, celebrity performers—and lots of local talent, including a 2,018-person choir. One of the highlights of the afternoon at Husky Stadium was the inclusion of a cheer squad from nearby Bellevue that performed as athletes were gearing up to come onto the field.
The cheer group, known as Highland Squad, is made up of athletes with intellectual disabilities. Only one other cheer team like it exists in the Greater Seattle area.
This was part of why coach Anne Christiansen started the team 12 years ago. The other, perhaps more important part? She was inspired.
“I saw a competition that included cheer ability teams, the category that Highland Squad [falls in] in the cheer world, and I was like, this is the coolest thing ever,” she recalled. “What you see in these athletes is the absolute pure joy of the sport.”
Despite her enthusiasm, she was on edge when beginning the team. Initially worried about how many people would join, she was thrilled when 10 people signed up for the first session. Since then, the team’s size has grown to between 18 to 23 athletes per practice, however only 11 were able to cheer at the opening ceremony.
Christiansen distinctly remembers that first practice. A young woman named Kristen was the first person to say hello. “I have been wanting to do this my entire life,” Kristen told Christiansen. “I have been dreaming of this. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for making my dreams come true.” A 12-year veteran of Highland Squad, Kristen, now 47, is the team captain.
During practice, athletes learn valuable skills. Cheerleading is a team sport, and teamwork is one of the most crucial skills the athletes learn. They also work on social skills. When some athletes started with Highland Squad, they were practically non-verbal, but now they interact and engage with others frequently. Fine motor skills are also important in a sport that requires having a range of motion and spatial awareness. Cheerleading gives them an opportunity to improve all of these skills in a traditional, inclusive environment.
One athlete in particular has stood out in Christiansen’s mind. When the athlete first joined the team, she was non-verbal, save a whisper here and there, and sat in a chair during practice. After three years on the team, Christiansen explained that she was “waving [her] arms in the air, putting her poms in the air, and doing high kicks!” Christiansen described how it was “interesting to see the progression of her balance and development of her motor skills over that time.”
While this story may sound unique, it is not. Every single athlete has overcome a challenge of some sort. Together, they put on multiple performances each year. “We do not look at disabilities as challenges,” said Christiansen. “[Instead] we figure out how we can incorporate everyone.”