Five teams from across the Lone Star state faced off at the first-ever Special Olympics Texas Cheerleading State Championships— and the competition was fierce.
“We weren’t expecting it to be so extravagant. We were intimidated going in,” says Allee Pence, a coach for Team Mesquite Cheer, a small cheer team of girls with intellectual disabilities. The other teams had established cheer programs, traditional cheer uniforms, megaphones, signs and more.
While Team Mesquite Cheer may not have had the experience or the fancy outfits and accessories, the rookie team that formed just one year ago took to the floor with a routine set to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”— and took home gold in the process.
Allee Pence and Elaine Schor both work as special education teachers in the Mesquite Independent School District in Mesquite, Texas. After volunteering at the Special Olympics Texas basketball tournament in January 2018, the duo was inspired to start their own cheerleading team after watching another school’s squad perform a routine.
“We thought, ‘Oh, why don’t we have a cheer team.’ Mesquite has almost every single sport except cheer,” Pence, a 25-year-old behavior teacher, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “We looked at each other and we were like, ‘This is us. We’re going to do this.’”
After Pence and Schor assembled eight members for the first Team Mesquite Cheer squad, they began to practice in March 2018. “At first we wanted to just get out there and support our community,” says Schor, a 30-year-old life skills teacher. The team practiced every Tuesday and performed their routines at basketball games, football games and local community events.
Schor adds, “The Mesquite community loves and adores them and that makes the girls feel good.”
As luck would have it, the formation of Team Mesquite Cheer coincided with the recognition of cheerleading as a competitive sport within Special Olympics Texas. The establishment of cheer in the Texas Special Olympics community was a huge win for the organization’s current cheer director Crystal Wells, who had been advocating for its inclusion since 2007. While special ed cheer teams had existed throughout the state for years, the athletes could only perform routines at exhibitions.
“The competition adds something amazing for the athletes,” Wells tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “To have a sport that is recognized and to have a platform on to complete and be awarded and recognized was huge.”
After officially becoming a Special Olympics Texas competitive sport in 2018, the organization would hold its first-ever state championship in 2019— just in time for the budding Team Mesquite Cheer squad to join the competition.
“Honestly, we had talked about not entering because we weren’t sure if that was something we wanted to do,” says Pence. “But I’m glad we did because at the end of the day we looked at our girls and said we’re just going to have fun and we’re going to rock this thing.”
Taking a leap of faith, Team Mesquite Cheer joined the competition held in Arlington, Texas on Saturday. Schor and Pence ultimately decided to choreograph a routine to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.”
“We just thought it’d be a really fun upbeat song with a message that we love who we are and haters can back off,” Schor explains of the song choice. “The song was about confidence and that’s something our girls were not lacking in.”
When Schor and Pence arrived at the Special Olympics Texas cheer state championship, they felt intimidated by the more robust cheer teams, who looked “beautiful, poised and graceful.” While Schor and Pence “felt nervous for the girls,” their squad didn’t give in to the pressure. Members of the team danced their hearts out, waving their blue and white pom-poms in high Vs and low Vs.
“The music starts and they’re popping their hips looking sassy and cute,” Schor recalls of their championship-winning performance. “We finished off the routine with a build.”
When the results came in, Team Mesquite Cheer took home gold. And while the cheerleaders nailed their routine, what won the judges over was the squad’s passion and heart.
“The Mesquite Team showed passion for their sport and enthusiasm,” Sarah Haines, the senior director of connectivity at Special Olympics Texas, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “When the team came out, the judges witnessed a true love of what they were doing and a true camaraderie on their team which helped them come out with gold.”
While Schor and Pence were surprised and ecstatic at Team Mesquite Cheer’s big win, the coaches are even more excited that they’ve helped create an empowering community for children with intellectual disabilities.
“We’re just two teachers who have taken it upon ourselves to start a cheer team, but we’re blessed to have these girls in our lives,” Pence tells Yahoo Lifestyle, adding that she also hopes to raise awareness for Special Olympics programs.
“If we can give those kids, young adults and adults a place where they can feel normal and like they’re on top of the world, then that’s incredible.”
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