Not every athlete at this year’s Special Olympics USA Games will be competing. Some will be too busy entertaining the crowds and encouraging the athletes on the field.
Consider the Mercer Island Sparkle Squad, a unified cheer group made up of 13 mentors and nine students with intellectual disabilities.
Their goal is to “add spirit and enthusiasm to the games,” said coach Jami Blumenstein.
The group has been active for 10 years, but this year it will break new ground when it takes part in SO CHEER at the Games, joining other squads from California, Arizona, Texas, Maryland and North Carolina. This will be the first time that a cheer program is included at the USA Games, though it is still not recognized as a Special Olympic sport.
The Sparkle Squad has long embodied the spirit of inclusion that is essential to the Special Olympics. The cheerleaders have “a wide range of abilities, and everyone does the best they can do,” Blumenstein said.
Just as other Special Olympics athletes train year-round for their events, the Sparkle Squad has been practicing every Thursday after school, rehearsing cheers, dances and even a flash-mob routine.
“It’s been a year of preparation,” Blumenstein said. “Everyone’s really excited.”
During the school year, the Sparkle Squad performs at football and basketball games, parades, assemblies and more. This summer, they will perform at the Opening Ceremony at Husky Stadium, as well as on the sidelines and during halftime of various sporting events and at the Games’ Fan Zone. Members will also greet visiting athletes and delegates for Welcome Day at SeaTac Airport on June 30.
As with any team sport, the members of the Squad gain “sense of pride, confidence, school and community spirit, and make lifetime friends,” Blumenstein said. Their bond is apparent, with “hugs, high fives and smiles” a regular part of their practices and performances. Their joy is contagious, she said.
“These kids get out there and just shine. The crowd always goes crazy for them,” she said. “Even if I’m having a challenging day, at Sparkle practice I’m always smiling. It’s so much fun.”
While the Sparkle Squad typically cheers solely for Mercer Island High School, its members aren’t strangers to supporting national and international athletes. Cheer made its Special Olympics debut at the World Games in Los Angeles in 2015, and a few Sparkle Squad members made that trip. Cheer was also featured at the World Games in Austria in 2017.
Leading up to the games, the Sparkle Squad will make welcome signs, learn new cheers and receive their red, white and blue Special Olympics uniforms.
Organizers are hoping that the SO CHEER initiative at these Games will inspire many to start a Special Olympics cheer program or team in the United States, and worldwide.
“Come to the games and events, and cheer along with us,” Blumenstein said.