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How a teen with Down syndrome joined a champion cheer squad and got to fly

'There are zero mean girls on this squad. I wish I could bottle the affection they have for Audrey.'
/ Source: TODAY

Gimme an A-W-E-S-O-M-E!

Ask 13-year-old Audrey Chisholm what it feels like being a cheerleader whose team competed — and won — at nationals and she can’t wait to answer. “I feel it all the way to my heart,” the exuberant eighth grader from Homer Glen, Ill., told TODAY Parents. “It is awesome.”

All the more so since Audrey, who has Down syndrome, also knows what it feels like being on a cheering squad and not be asked to participate in a contest. Audrey, along with her mom, Jody, 54, and dad, Scott, 58, faced that four years ago.

Audrey Chisholm, a 13-year-old from Homer Glen, Ill. who has Down syndrome, competed with her team at a national cheerleading championship in Orlando.Courtesy of Jody Chisholm

First Mom and Dad got angry. Then they got busy searching for an inclusive team that valued Audrey’s talent, energy and enthusiasm. “She loves cheering. She picks up arm movements quicker than some of the typically functioning girls,” said Jody, whose other two children are 28 and 31.

Happily, three years ago, the Chisholms connected with the Mokena Burros junior varsity cheerleading team, located about 30 miles southwest of Chicago. A strong squad, it was savoring a winning streak. Jody was unsure if Audrey would be embraced. She offered to send the squad’s coach, Christine O’Donnell, a video of Audrey cheering.

No need, said Coach O (as she’s known). “We’re a recreational cheer program and we’re all-inclusive,” she recalled telling Jody. “Registration is coming up fast. Come over.”

A coach since 2004, O’Donnell hadn’t worked with a youth with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual and developmental disabilities. Audrey was at a third-grade level, as noted in the Chicago Tribune, which first told the Chisholms’ story.

Coach O prepared the other girls. “I said, ‘We have a new girl with Down syndrome on the team. She can do everything you can do but she might take longer sometimes. But we’re gonna nail this.’ I got no protests.”

Audrey Chisholm, a 13-year-old from Homer Glen who has Down syndrome, and is competing with her team at a national cheerleading championship in Orlando.Courtesy of Jody Chisholm

An avid viewer of movies and shows like “Bring It On” and “Cheer Squad,” Audrey dreamed of flying — a term for when a cheerleader is lifted into the air during a routine. But first she needed to sharpen her moves and build core strength. A lack of muscle tone is common to kids who have Down Syndrome. Over the past three cheering seasons, Audrey has worked out with her team and solo to prepare for competitions.

All that dedication and work culminated on Dec. 6, when Audrey and her 23 teammates headed to Orlando, Fla., for the Pop Warner National Cheer & Dance Championships. Before the event, the girls checked out Disney World, where it was all for one, one for all. Audrey fears costumed mascots, so her teammates shielded her from the characters.

During the competition that aired on ESPN, the girls gave Audrey more support when — in a dream come true — she got to fly. Two girls hoisted Audrey waist-high while another spotted her from behind. When all of the cheering was over, the girls went home Junior Varsity Level 4 National Champs.

“Our team is so great,” Audrey said.

Her mother concurred. “There are zero mean girls on this squad,” noted Jody. “I wish I could bottle the affection they have for Audrey.”

And this proud, protective mom also wishes she could ease the ache from the fact that Audrey, who goes to a mainstream school and may not be cut out for high school cheering, has aged out of the Burros team.

“I don’t think she understands that this is the end of the line,” said Jody. “Still, to see the joy on her face while getting to fly ... it is like Christmas came early. It was really important for Audrey to have that experience.”