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Special-needs performers have something to cheer about

| Thursday, March 3, 2011

Ten-year-old Taylor Morgan wears leg braces because of a disorder affecting her lower extremities, but that has not prevented her from becoming a cheerleader.

Morgan of South Park is a member of the Fire and Ice Sparklers, a special-needs cheerleading team from West Mifflin that performed during the LIVE! cheer and dance competition in the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.

Born 10 years ago at a gym in Lexington, Ky., special-needs cheerleading has spread across the nation. The Fire and Ice Sparklers is one of five area teams performing this season. Others include the Pittsburgh Superstars Shining Stars from Cranberry; Pittsburgh Pride Shine from Canonsburg; Steel City All Stars Zinc from Plum; and the Arcadia Aces Hearts from Chippewa, Beaver County. All have existed for several years.

Teams fall under the jurisdiction of the U.S. All-Star Federation, which oversees cheerleading teams not affiliated with schools or athletic associations.

Children as young as 4 participate, as do adults. Nearly 40 people compete on special-needs teams in the Pittsburgh area. With assistance, many tumble and perform typical cheerleading routines.

Morgan said her favorite part is being tossed in the air in a routine commonly known as "flying."

"I love flying," she said.

Morgan has familial spastic paraparesis, a rare heredity disorder causing gradual weakness and spasms in the legs.

Melissa Morgan, Taylor's mother, has noticed a marked improvement in her daughter's mental outlook and physical condition since she began cheering several years ago.

"She's so much happier," Melissa Morgan said. "Cheerleading has given her a purpose. When she went to the doctor, he told her to keep up whatever she was doing because her hip rotation had improved, which allows her to walk better."

Monica O'Connor, owner of the gym where the Arcadia Aces Hearts train, was not surprised to learn about Morgan's improvement.

"We hear all the time from parents how their children's psychological and physical conditions have improved because of (special-needs) cheerleading," O'Connor said.

Morgan practices once a week with the aid of a helper. Seven to 10 spotters stand by as she performs stunts.

Nikki Ball, 17, enjoys working as her helper.

"You need a lot of patience and understanding, and you have to be aware of her physical needs, but it's very rewarding," Ball said. "It's fun seeing her improve and enjoying herself."

Special-needs cheerleaders generally do not receive scores at events. Judges provide comments critiquing their performances.

Routines include cartwheels, jumps and pyramids performed to music.

"Special-needs cheerleaders amaze me all the time," said Pittsburgh Superstars Shining Stars Coach Becky Troppman.

Jeanne Schulte, owner and coach of the Steel City All Stars Zinc, said parents ask her to encourage children to perform somersaults and cartwheels.

"They want us to push them as much as possible so they learn to do things on their own," Schulte said.

Special-needs cheerleaders who are not able to tumble or fly find other ways to perform.

"They may use a walker or wheelchair, but they're out there cheering," said Chrissie Bianco, owner and coach of the Pittsburgh Pride Shine.

Members enjoy the social interaction provided by special-needs teams, who train in gyms with non-special needs cheerleaders.

Bill Presson, vice chair of the special-needs committee of the U.S. All-Star Federation, said 300 gyms sponsor special-needs cheerleading teams nationwide. Many are in the Southeast, where cheerleading as a whole is very popular.

Presson helped develop special-needs cheerleading as coach of the Kentucky Elite cheerleading team in 2001. He is surprised by its growth during the past decade.

"I thought it would be like the Special Olympics, where you hold it for about a week and then it's over," he said. "It's become more of a year-round thing."

Presson of Birmingham, Ala., said the concept started in routine fashion.

"A parent attending a meeting (of the Kentucky Elite) brought it up and thought it would be a good idea," Presson said. "We introduced it. It became really popular after a lot of people saw it at Cheersport (Nationals) in 2002."

Cheersport plays host to the world's largest national cheer and dance championships. According to Presson, 21 special-needs teams -- the most ever -- competed at this year's championships Feb. 18-20 in Atlanta. More than 900 teams competed overall.

Pittsburgh area special-needs teams mostly perform locally. None competed at Cheersport Nationals.

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