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Champions of Character: College & SOMI Athletes Come Together to Cheer

SOMI athletes take participate in cheer clinic on EMU's campus

Walking through the empty lobby of Eastern Michigan University’s George Gervin GameAbove Center – a state-of-the-art sports complex that rivals professional stadiums – one would question if they had arrived at the correct location for an event.

The turn styles and ticket booths that spectators crowded through on game days stood empty. There was not another person to be found at the front of the building.

It was once a few steps inside you could hear the reverberation of loud bass music and heavy footsteps that were a giveaway of activity inside the stadium.

Standing at the top of the stairs, peering down into the arena, the hardwood was a sea of sweaty bodies, hundreds of athletes were hard at work, following choreographed dance steps to music in unison.

The collaboration was the result of an invitation from the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to more than 80 Special Olympics Michigan (SOMI) athletes to receive one-on-one training from seasoned college athletes in the art of cheer and dance as part of its Champions of Character program. 

“The purpose of this event was to introduce the sport of cheerleading to Special Olympics Michigan athletes,” said Shelley Mitchell a cheer coach with Champion Force MCE Elite and SOMI employee, on the event hosted by the NAIA. “It also allowed college athletes to see what Unified Sports are all about.”

The goal of the nationwide Champions of Character program is to change the culture of sport. Its mission is to provide training to instill the values that build character, so students, coaches and parents know, do, and value the right thing on and off the field. Research shows that the longer a student spends in sports, their social reasoning rises.

“The fact that my cheerleaders could come and experience this was just overwhelming,” Mitchell said on introducing her athletes to the athletes of Special Olympics Michigan. “My team went from being very nervous to being so comfortable and having so much fun in about five minutes.”

During the SOMI Cheer Clinic, each NAIA athlete named a “Champion of Character” in attendance for the 8th Annual Competitive Cheer and Dance Competition Championship and was paired with a Special Olympics Michigan athlete to walk them through the choreography of a cheer and dance routine.

“As dad, I loved seeing Ellie have the opportunity to do something that she loves,” said Tony Linzmeier, father of athlete Eleanor (Ellie) Linzmeier. “I believe the college athletes were able to connect a real person with the concept of ‘disability’ which helps break down barriers. For the SOMI athletes, it was great for them to see and emulate the positive energy of their college cheer peers.”

For many SOMI athletes, the Cheer Clinic was their first experience with the sport. But, it was one that came naturally. During a break in learning routines, NAIA athletes were able to showcase moves that would be featured in their competition later in the week, many lifting their peers in the air and tumbling across the gym floor. In true SOMI fashion, the athletes of Special Olympics weren’t satisfied being sideline spectators. Many quickly running forward to showcase their own skills of tumbling, dancing, and energetic chants.

“If we come together, anything is possible,” Mitchell said. “My heart was just full of joy and excitement throughout the whole event." 

The clinic culminated with a group performance to both the cheer and dance routines practiced throughout the day. For many NAIA and SOMI athletes, this was their first Unified experience – bringing together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities (ID), as one.

“My favorite part was watching the final performance,” said Tony Linzmeier, father of athlete Ellie. “She loves to perform!”

This performance is hopefully the first of many for Ellie and her SOMI peers. Cheerleading is not currently a Special Olympics Michigan sport recognized at the state level. However, it is now well on its way.

Management with the NAIA is looking forward to welcoming SOMI athletes again for future fellowship and training, following a successful and fun event on Eastern Michigan University’s Campus.

High-resolution photographs from the Champions of Character/SOMI Cheer Clinic can be viewed here.