By Jessica Able, Record Staff Writer
Sixteen Special Olympics athletes received top honors at the state cheerleading competition Feb. 27 held at Fern Creek High School.
The team — known as the St. A United Hornets — is sponsored by St. Athanasius Church in Highview.
Tammy Stout, a parishioner at St. Athanasius and organizer of the team, said the first-place finish at last weekend’s competition made all the hard work worth it.
“These athletes are the highlight of my week and the way they’ve improved — wow!” Stout said.
The team also received the spirit award, an honor Stout said was even more thrilling than the first-place award.
“That’s something we strive for every single year. That’s what the girls hear from me at every practice — to be quiet when others are performing, to be respectful and to be supportive,” she said.
The Special Olympics team at St. Athanasius got its start in 2009. A team was formed of athletes with normal abilities and special needs and were categorized as “unified partners.” That meant, the cheerleaders performed the cheers, stunts and dances together.
The special-needs athletes have disabilities ranging from Down syndrome to autism.
High school and college students, who are St. Athanasius graduates and veterans of the Special Olympics cheer program, now serve as coaches and mentors to the special-needs athletes.
“There is nothing better than coming in and seeing their faces every week,” said Sara Michaels, a senior at Assumption High School.
The team recently received “elite” status, meaning the team must perform a 2.5 minute routine — similar to what is performed by competitive high school and college-level programs.
Beckman Childers, a member of the team, said her favorite part about being a cheerleader is seeing her teammates.
“I like to be with my friends and everyone,” Childers, 19, said.
Megan Mudd, 14, agreed and added that she enjoys the stunts and dancing, too.
Stout said the support of St. Athanasius parish is critical to the success of the team.
“The church is very, very supportive in letting us host our annual pancake breakfast the first weekend of December,” she said. “We love our St. A family and could not do this without their continued support.”
The money raised by the breakfast, Stout said, is used to pay for uniforms and competition entry fees.
Other parishioners have also made donations to the squad through the church office or stopped by practice to surprise the team with snacks, Stout noted.
Robert Waddell, pastoral associate, said the parish has embraced the team with open arms.
“They practice here regularly and people are good about juggling schedules around,” he said.
Stout said she considers her work with the Special Olympics cheer team a ministry and a blessing.
“These families are truly grateful for the time and the skills that we’ve taught their children,” she said.
In addition to the dance routines and tumbling passes, Stout also said she tries to incorporate a sense of service into the team. Each year, the athletes host a “birthday party for baby Jesus.”
“We bring baby items to donate, versus doing a gift exchange amongst the athletes,” she said.
In December, the team collected more than 200 packs of diapers and, together as a team, delivered them to the St. Joseph’s Children’s Home.
Families with special-needs children are invited to sign up for the cheer program in September. Call St. Athanasius at 969-3332, to receive more information.