Local special needs cheerleaders win national championshipThe four-member "Sunshine Team" cheerleading squad, coached by Leah Cook at RAH! Spirit, recently won the national championship of their division at the Athletic Championships event in Chattanooga.
Members of the Sunshine Team, a special-needs cheerleading team, hoist Emerson Ratchford in a basket position during practice at RAH! Spirit. Team members are, from left, Sarah Rafique, Brittany Wynn, Matthew Weir and Sarah Trew. Emerson is a non-special needs team member who participates in the routine.
Matthew Weir had a little initial hesitation about becoming a cheerleader.
There was just something, he thought, about "being a boy cheerleader" in a sport dominated by girls.
But, Weir ultimately decided, there was "nothing wrong" with it. Lots of guys were on high school and college teams. And it kept him close to his girlfriend, a fellow cheerleader.
Today, the handsome, lanky Ooltewah High School senior is a part of the four-person Sunshine Team that was awarded a Grand Champion ribbon in the special needs division of the Athletic Championships cheerleading competition in Chattanooga in January.
The Sunshine Team is the brainchild of Leah Cook, an instructor at Rah! Spirit, a cheerleading instruction center on Powers Court off Bonny Oaks Drive. Certified to teach special-needs children and the daughter of a special-needs teacher, she wanted to start a local class similar to ones she had seen in Calhoun, Ga., and Dalton, Ga.
The United States All Star Federation, of which Rah! Spirit is a member, defines special needs as a condition characterized by impairment of skills and overall intelligence in areas such as cognition, language, and motor and social abilities as identified by an agency or professional, or a cognitive delay, as determined by standardized measures such as intelligent quotient testing or other measures that are generally accepted within the professional community.
Initially, the process was trying, Cook says. Fliers and word-of-mouth were the primary avenues of attraction.
"It's been difficult," she says. "Parents were hesitant about getting their children involved. I was a new coach who had never done this before. They didn't want to put their children in my hands."
Cook started with two children in the gym with its signature black and purple color scheme, then saw her charges double to four.
"It's relaxed," she says of the weekly practices (plus one Saturday a month). "It's not very fast-paced. We take our time."
But Cook says, "I want them to do the most they can with their ability. I don't baby them. I don't hold back."
Their memorized routines, which include specific skills, movements, motions and tumbling catered to each cheerleader's ability, are 2 1/2 minutes long.
New routines begin each May and are honed weekly for the competitive season, which runs from mid-fall to mid-spring. The squad has competed five times this season already -- though more in exhibition rather than in competition with other teams -- and will compete twice more before the end of April.
"Some [members] are more able to perform than others," Cook says. "It varies, but they've all shown great improvement."
Grants and donations pay for the cheerleaders' uniforms, shoes, gym time and competitions. The only expense for parents is travel expenses when the teams go out of town.
Parents say the squad -- members of which range in age from 17 to 22 -- provides their children a sense of belonging.
"He had not had it with anything else," says Daphne Weir, Matthew's mother.
She says her son's physical skills have improved, and she believes the group aspects of the squad have benefited him.
"He's proud to be a part of it," she says.
Jimmy and Mandy Wynn, whose daughter Brittany, 22, is a team member, say there are not a lot of activities for children whose cognitive abilities are slightly out of the norm.
"There's such a sense of self-worth," she says. "It's built their confidence up. There's such pride."
"They're playing on equal footing," he says.
Brittany and teammate Sarah Rafique, 20, participated in sports as younger children but say they haven't had much to keep them active in recent years.
They say Cook is a perfect combination of teacher and friend.
"I think Miss Leah is very sweet and nice," says Sarah.
"Miss Leah is the best coach we've ever had because she's so patient with us," says Brittany.
Cook, though, isn't claiming perfection.
"I get frustrated," she says, "but I don't sweat the small stuff. I try to stay positive."
When her cheerleaders, who are "100 percent willing to please" and have "exceptionally positive attitudes" perform their exacting routines and parents are crying with tears of happiness, the hours of practice fall away.
"The end result is worth it," she says.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...