The voice on the other end of the phone was happy and peppy and positively saturated with enthusiasm, so it wasn't exactly astonishing that the caller wanted me to write an article promoting her cheerleading squad and encouraging kids to join. And, since we get a lot of calls like that at the newspaper, I have to confess that I didn't quite share her enthusiasm. It was what she said next that made me choke on my coffee: "We just haven't had a lot of success getting kids to try out for Special Olympics cheerleading in the city."
I started taking notes like crazy. "You mean...like huggers?" I asked. "People who volunteer to show up and cheer on the participants?" I had it all wrong - she meant individuals with developmental disabilities who could be part of a squad that cheered on their teammates, and who could compete with other squads of Special Olympians. Baltimore didn't have its own squad, and Special Olympics Maryland wanted to help them get one started.
Like everyone, I'm aware of the Special Olympics. I've seen participants compete in any number of sports - track, aquatics, you name it - but the idea of a cheerleading squad simply had never occurred to me. And as it turns out, it's one of the newest sanctioned sports to be offered by Special Olympics Maryland.
The program, I learned, is coed, and accepts anyone who is interested. The routines and cheers are simple. There are no high-flying gymnastics, and the emphasis is on working as a team and having fun while cheering on fellow Olympians. Most important, it provides kids with an experience comparable to that of their typically developing peers.
The coaches aren't the Vince Lombardi types; they're people like you and me. The cheerleading program organizer who called me had cheered in high school and college. Now that she was out in the working world, she liked the idea of taking her activity to the next generation - but a very different segment of that generation. "I had a great time as a cheerleader growing up, and I feel like other kids should be able to do it if they want to," she told me, "No matter what."
Which, in my book, makes it a program worth cheering for.