Cheerleaders With Down Syndome Demonstrate the Meaning of Inclusion

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In popular culture, cheerleading is often seen as a mix of negative and positive aspects. Competitive cheerleading, for example, is slowly gaining recognition as an extremely challenging sport that relies on constant practice and tumbling instructions to bring together. However, thanks to a number of television shows, movies, and more, cheerleading coaches and their teams are often depicted as conniving and exclusionary. Fortunately, a cheer squad in Manitou Springs, Colorado is working to show just how inclusive, healthy and engaging cheerleading can be.

The Manitou Springs Mustangs cheer team has faced their share of challenges, many of them centered around working with three different cheerleading coaches in three years. However, many on the team say this adversity caused them to become a tight-knit group. The team no longer holds tryouts, but takes anyone who is willing to put in the work to help them succeed. Because of this, the Mustangs now have some unusual members who are an integral part of their team: two students with Down syndrome.

It all began with Kory Mitchell, a sophomore who loves performing. After joining the Mustangs team in the summer of 2013, Mitchell began attending strength, conditioning and tumbling classes with the rest of the team, starting at 7 a.m. twice a week. While she has a number of physical problems, including a hole in her heart and tiring celiac disease, Mitchell put in the work with no complaint. The results weren’t always smooth at first, but the tumbling instructions and other efforts paid off: Mitchell, who used to be afraid of heights, is now a flyer, meaning she is repeatedly launched into the air and held aloft by her teammates, often holding part of the team’s sign. Now, Mitchell is helping train another student with Down syndrome. A friend for several years, freshman Trinity Kranz is receiving tumbling instructions and other help from Mitchell as she acclimates to life with the Mustangs.

But the team’s story is more than a heartwarming tale: it also one of success. In December, the squad won their third state cheer title in four years. A month later, they also performed in the Colorado School of Mines Dance and Cheer Classic. As the Classic was Mitchell’s first competition, she participated in two-hour long practices and usually continued to practice even more at home. The team reportedly hit their routine perfectly at the competition, placing second. With two years before Mitchell graduates, and three years before Kranz follows, it is likely that this inclusive team will have plenty of other chances to shine. More on this.

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