The Justice cheer team in Midlothian has the opportunity of a lifetime as one of 10 teams across the nation to set the standard for Special Olympics cheer.
The team was invited to compete in the Special Olympics 50th anniversary in Chicago in early July. The competition is a demonstration, like a trial run for the sport.
During the meet, the first-ever Special Olympics World Cup tournament will transpire. The first four days Justice will cheer at the soccer games and perform half-time dances. Saturday is then a Day of Inclusion — culminating with the cheer competition.
Crystal Wells, the head coach and special needs program director at Liberty cheer gym in Midlothian, said, “It’s Special Olympics history, and we would have been there.”
The team will be scored for the first time in Chicago. With that in mind, practices are tough, and the cheerleaders learn more about the sport. The team has never performed sideline cheering or a dance. In preparation, the team memorized nine cheers and eight dances.
“We are pushing them past their limits to excel in a sport that they already love,” Wells affirmed.
Justice will be recognized as an All-Star team and will compete against five others in Chicago. There will also be a couple scholastic teams and a couple Special Olympics teams because in some states cheerleading in Special Olympics is already considered a sport.
The entire Justice team is comprised of 34 members, but only 17 will travel to Chicago. Funds are tight, and the group spends three hours a week practicing and 10 hours fundraising.
“For the kids, what I think they get out of it is the bonding,” Wells elaborated. “They are working really hard at these fundraisers and are working together. They are collaborating together and are really having to be a team, working toward the same goal.”
“These kids have stamina and endurance, and they are blowing my mind,” Wells expressed.
Wells budgeted about $1,500 a head to pay for lodging, travel expenses, Special Olympic uniforms, and food. So far the team raised about $5,000 from sponsorships, and spirit nights at restaurants.
“We are not nearly where we need to be. We have a lot of work left to do,” Wells shared.
The team has been together for 10 years after Wells founded the special needs program at Liberty cheer. Wells' daughter has a disability and has always been passionate about dance and cheerleading as a young child. Wells set out to find a team for her daughter to participate in but nothing existed at the time in Midlothian.
Children with disabilities now train with cheer peers and build friendships.
“The athletes who don’t have disabilities, it affects their lives outside of the gym as well,” Wells pointed out.
She continued, “There’s a lot of fear in the unknown, and so they get to go out in their community and not to so afraid to talk to others who have disabilities or stand up for them.”
One of the cheer peers on Justice, Zia Pritchard a recent graduate from Cedar Hill Collegiate High School, has cheered at Liberty for two years but got involved with Justice this past year.
“I wish I had done it last year,” Pritchard expressed. “The inclusion. You can’t get it anywhere else at any other gym that I know of. It has a lot of other personalities that you don’t find on regular all-star teams. It’s very loving and caring and exciting to be on and funny to be on.”
Through her experience, she learned how hard it is to be patient as a young adult, but her tolerance improved over time. She is proud to show off the team and is excited to see what experiences are next for her in the special needs community. She disclosed this was her first time to work with children with disabilities.
For Nayla Rayos, a special needs athlete, she has competed with Justice for five years. The 14-year-old said cheer for her “is fun and I really like it.”
When she spoke about the fundraising, Rayos expressed her gratitude toward the Midlothian community.
“They do everything for us like give money, and we love you,” Rayos shared.
The team is comprised of boys and girls. The youngest on the team is 4-year-old, and there is no age cap. They train year round and compete in driving distance with their gym. In the past, the team traveled to Oklahoma City and south Texas. In 2015, when Special Olympics cheerleading went global, Justice attended the World Games in Los Angeles. It was the first time in 20 years for the event to be hosted in America. Justice was one of 17 teams that attended.
“Cheerleading is not a recognized sport in Special Olympics and so being at the games, we had a world-wide stage. We are on a mission," Wells affirmed. "We are trying to get cheerleading a national sport in Special Olympics, and I’m trying to do that in Texas and we actually on track to have cheerleading as a sport here by the end of 2019.”
Wells is passionate about the Special Olympic cheerleader movement and has been an advocate for Texas ever since her involvement with Liberty Cheer. Justice has the potential to be the first Special Olympic cheer team recognized in the state of Texas.
To help Justice travel to Chicago, they can be supported at https://www.gofundme.com/sendjusticetochicago.
Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-5d17-1450