This story first appeared in the Information Point newsletter Our World in 2010 , when Tommy Johnson wrote about Superkatz and his brother Jeffrey.
‘Sport… Friends… Fun… and Free’ are four words that many young and disabled boys and girls don’t hear often. The harsh truth is that four more common words in their vocabulary probably include, ‘Expensive… Discomfort… Doctors… and Different’. But for a handful of Texas natives in and around the Dallas area, the former set of words have become more and more susceptible to the memory of 20-30 young and disabled children due to a new found love for cheerleading, and the ability to participate in it.
For quite a few years, a handful of coaches at Cheer Athletics, including myself, had been pushing for a change in the gym… an addition… a team unlike any other to step foot in Cheer Athletics’ latest facility in Garland since the company’s establishment in 1994. Once all of the kinks were worked out and all of the questions were answered, our gym made a change that would affect us, and those involved, forever. The Cheer Athletics Superkatz, a Special Needs team ultimately comprised of 20-30 mentally and / or physically disabled kids took to the gym for the first time in Cheer Athletics history in August of 2009. Little did any of the Superkatz’ original helpers know this decision would positively change the lives of all these children indefinitely, including my brother, Jeffrey Johnson, a 13 year old diagnosed with x-linked myotubular myopathy.
Admittedly, the first practice was a bit hectic. As I’m sure it is a big concern in many families with disabled children, as it is in mine, leaving your child alone, regardless of his or her condition, can be a scary thought, especially when your child has extremely unique needs. The kids originally came in, sat down and began stretching. During this time they were given out nametags and paired with another athlete on another team in the gym, labeled as a ‘helper’, who also had a nametag. In addition to the ‘helpers’ from other teams in the gym, there are many coaches within the gym, and even a few other people in or involved in the cheerleading industry who regularly attend these practices, once a week on Wednesdays for an hour. Directly after a short introduction by all involved, the kids were taught how to do some basic cheerleading jumps, motions and stunts. After about half an hour, the kids were then led over to the trampolines, easily their favorite part of the day! The end of practice involved learning and practicing the Cheer Athletics cheer and huddling up in a circle to finally conclude with our gym-wide break, followed by the team name, Superkatz.
These practices continued for several months until their final competition in Dallas, Texas at the National Cheerleaders Association’s annual competition at the Dallas Convention Center. This venue and diverse event already presents a wide array of people and their friends and families, but quite easily the most special addition to the competition is now the Special Needs division. During the block of time when this division performs, literally thousands of people, whether they be coaches, athletes or friends and family, stop what they are doing and run over to the Arena, where Special Needs teams from all around the United States engage in competition, just like any other cheerleading team in the world. No exhibitions, no exceptions, no games. Just real, raw, and ‘normal’ cheerleading. The team with the strongest routine wins the ultimate prize… a trophy taller than most kids on the team and a black leather jacket for each member and their coaches stating, ‘NCA National Champion’. Some people, including myself, have argued that this is unfair to the children and that ‘everyone should be a winner in this division’, but I have learned that this is exactly the opposite of what these children desire. Any chance they can get, they just want to be what Americans have grown to label as (impossibly) ‘normal’. All they want is to be a part of the thousands, possibly millions, of people in the world who share a passion for cheerleading and performing. At the end of the day, especially for these athletes, it’s not about what place you get, or how big your trophy is, but about how much fun you had, how lucky you are to be able to perform like this in front of thousands of people, and about showing off what you have worked so incredibly hard to perfect to the best of your ability, as it should be for any athlete.
Although the initial practice was chaotic, it was a success. The athletes had a blast and kept coming back. The season definitely had its ups and downs, surely characteristic of any sport, but the memories these new athletes, the ‘helpers’ from the gym, the staff and all of the additional friends and family members who helped in the process have created are unlike any others I have ever witnessed or made. Not only have we given these disabled athletes a new hope and optimistic outlook on the opportunities in life, I truly believe no matter how many things we present to them… no matter how many new things we teach them… and no matter how loud we cheer for them, they teach us the most. You see, any day to them is somehow always a great one. No matter the number of doctor visits, the number of procedures performed on various parts of their bodies, the amount of stresses and hardships thrown upon the shoulders of those special athletes and their families, that one hour a week where they feel like they are on top of the world erases it all. For that one hour a week, they can walk, or wheel, into a gym where everyone accepts them, even those who are unable to assist with the team practices. They can make and keep numerous friends, disabled and not. And most importantly, they can forget about those four terrible words no young boy or girl should ever feel, and know that no matter how tough life gets, and no matter what any doctor says to them, they are not alone.
In the back of my mind, I never knew how much these kids would get out of such a simple experience and act of community service that first day. Even being so close to my brother for the preceding (then) 12 years and listening to him wheel around the house saying the Cheer Athletics cheer, making up silly motions and demanding that I start a team for him at the gym, I never dreamed what would come of the decision for us to push for this team and eventually make this dream come true.
It’s difficult to label these children as ‘disabled’ when, in fact, they should be labeled ‘able athletes’. They come into the gym and ultimately teach us life lessons. They have become, in my eyes, the epitome of what true athletes should embody. Not only do they lift up each other and put a smile on everyone’s faces, they lift up those who take the ‘easy life’ for granted and make them realize how special life truly is, no matter how you have to live it. In fact, they can even physically lift each other up now! They are easily public figures and always have a positive attitude, no matter what the day brings. No matter what losses or victories they tuck away under their belt at the end of the day, the most important thing they value is life itself, the memories they’ve made and ultimately the fact that it’s a win-win relationship throughout the season: we coach them on everything cheerleading, and they coach us on everything we have ever taken for granted. I thank God every day that I am lucky enough to have one of these coaches as an immediate family member, and I am forever thankful to the athletes who have indefinitely changed my life, the Cheer Athletics Superkatz.