One of the hottest shows on television right now is Netflix’s Cheer. That same athleticism, dedication and teamwork will be on display this weekend at the FCIAC Cheer Competition, in Wilton High School‘s field house. Not only will Wilton High School’s Varsity and Junior Varsity squads be taking part, but the event marks the debut performance of the school’s Unified Cheer team, a squad for cheerleaders of all abilities.
Like other Unified teams in the district (basketball, soccer, track, and theater), Unified Cheer unites a mix of students with special needs and typical peers to work together. In its first season, the squad has drawn participants from high school down to Cider Mill.
It was a group of high school cheerleaders who got the idea rolling.
“We’ve seen it in a lot of other schools, just from going to competitions ever since we were in sixth grade, and we would talk about wanting to do it,” says WHS junior Keri O’Neill.
Fellow WHS junior Amanda Sklar approached special education teacher Emily Rippel with the idea.
“We basically just wanted to make everybody feel included in something that we loved, which was cheer,” Sklar explains.
During their once-a-week practices, the girls line up in formation, buddied up in pairs as they practice cheers, jumps and dance moves. They share laughs, exchange fist bumps and hugs after a run-through.
“They’re happy, they’re excited,” Rippel says of her students who are taking part. “And I think it says a lot about how welcoming and supportive typical peers are to their peers with disabilities.”
All of the Unified Cheer team have uniforms that match the ones the high school squads wear, including the glitter-covered hair bows.
“One of the cheerleaders after a practice said that one of the [Unified team] girls came into her job wearing the uniform, and her mom said that she’s never seen the girl so happy. And that being a part of cheer has just given her a space to feel like she’s included. Being a part of that is just really special and fun,” says Sklar.
Fourth grader Gracie LePage (below, with WHS cheerleader Rachel Tobias) says her favorite part about being part of the Unified Cheer team is being able to dance. She first saw the varsity squad perform at the homecoming game; now that it’s her chance to be on the team that takes center stage, how does she feel? “That’s very exciting,” she says, adding that she also likes the uniform. “It was pretty cute as well.”
The FCIAC Cheerleading Competition is this Saturday, Feb. 8 at the Wilton High School Zeoli Field House. Doors open at 10:30 a.m..