PITTSBORO — Dance moves, high kicks and joy were in abundance at Seaforth High School on Saturday for the annual Special Olympics North Carolina statewide cheerleading competition.
The event marked the first time Special Olympics N.C. held an event in Chatham County, and the first time the statewide cheerleading competition had been held since 2019, due to COVID-19. More than 120 athletes representing 18 teams and 14 counties across the state were present for the competition.
Athletes of all ages with intellectual or physical disabilities competed using routines they had rehearsed since February. Each one received raucous applause and plenty of smiles.
Emmie Stanley, 48, was one of the cheerleaders on the New Hanover Shining Stars at Saturday’s competition. She’s been a Special Olympics athlete for more than a decade, but Saturday marked the first time she’s competed in cheerleading.
“I’m so excited, we’re going to do so good,” she said before performing her routine. “We’ve all been practicing so hard and I’m just so happy to see everyone here smiling together.”
Stanley said her favorite part about the Special Olympics was making friends and partaking in a spirit of sportsmanship through competition. Stanley’s team has practiced biweekly since January for their performance. She says her teammates have become like family to her during that span.
“It used to be that athletes that had disabilities like me couldn’t do anything,” she said. “This gives us the opportunity to strut our stuff.”
As she watches the other teams compete, she cheers loudly for her friends across the state who she knows have worked equally hard to perfect their routines.
One of Stanley’s good friends is Stephanie Wilkerson, 31, a cheerleader on the Forsyth Cats. Wilkerson is also a longtime Special Olympics athlete. The statewide competitions are her favorite part because she gets to meet new people.
“I like cheer because it’s a team effort,” Wilkerson said. “Being at events like this gives me that good feeling. Everyone’s competing, everyone likes each other, everyone is just bubbly and friendly.”
The palpable positive energy on Saturday was felt by more than just the athletes. Wilkerson said her parents were equally upbeat on the drive to Seaforth on Saturday morning. They told her how proud they were that she was competing and encouraged her to “just have fun.”
The hard work paid off for both Stanley and Wilkerson on Saturday as both went home with gold medals for their respective teams.
Special Olympics decided to come to Seaforth after President and CEO of Special Olympics North Carolina Keith Fishburne reached out to longtime friend Jason Amy, the athletic director at Seaforth.
“I say ‘yes’ to everything,” Amy said. “We said we’d help out and here we are.”
SONC offers statewide competitions for 20 different sports. Fishburne said they attempt to hit every county in the state with various events, but Chatham was especially appealing given its centrality for many teams. He called the facility at Seaforth “top-notch” and hoped to host future competitions in the county.
Throughout the day, students and staff from Seaforth volunteered to aid with logistics like ushering teams into practice facilities, ensuring the schedule was followed and helping with the awards ceremony.
“Our hope is by volunteering with us, they’ll see our mission and want to come back in some capacity,” Fishburne said. “That’s good for us, but it also gives the students some leadership authority.”
Chatham County schools and organizations have been prominent advocates of SONC, especially this year. The Chatham County Sheriff’s Office raised more than $1.5 million for SONC with their annual torch run, the fourth most money in the state. The Sheriff’s Office also raised more than $23,000 for SONC through its Polar Plunge in February.
Next Tuesday, April 4, Seaforth will also be hosting a Unified Sports Day for Special Olympics athletes from across the county to compete in various sports.
After three years of not being able to host a statewide competition, Fishburne said he was grateful to be able to bring people together in such a positive way. For many Special Olympics athletes, he said the isolation of the pandemic caused them to lose confidence and be more hesitant to show their skills.
“Competitions like this really boost their confidence,” Fishburne said. “It assures them that it’s OK to get back out there.”
Some of the people most responsible for boosting athletes’ confidence are the coaches. They volunteer their time with the Special Olympics to teach the routines, bond with the athletes and get them ready for competition. That also includes picking out costumes, helping with makeup and accessories and more.
It’s a big task that involves a lot of time, energy and love. But for those like Holly Watt and Susan Fisher, coaches of the Harnett Hawks, it’s all worth it.
“There’s just pure fun and a joy that all the athletes have while performing,” Fisher said.
After assisting with her team’s performance on Saturday, Watt and Fisher beamed with pride in their athletes.
“They were nervous, but they pulled it off,” Watt said.
She said the hardest part of the routine was getting all the Hawks in sync. But on Saturday, that didn’t seem to be an issue.
One of the athletes on the team is non-verbal, according to Fisher. She was in charge of holding up signs that read “Go Hawks” and “Pink and White” — the team’s colors. During practice, the coaches had been handing her the signs to hold up. But during the actual performance, she didn’t need the help and picked up the signs by herself, showing them to the crowd with a big smile.
“That was just like a huge plus,” Fisher said. “Seeing them have that aha moment, I was just so happy.”
Watt said the athletes give everything they have to make the performance shine.
“For people who don’t have a disability, events like this break the stereotypes,” Fisher said.
For more information about Special Olympics North Carolina, visit sonc.net.
Reporter Ben Rappaport can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @b_rappaport
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