May 09, 2017

Inclusive Spirit Squad Gives Girl With Down Syndrome Something to Cheer About

Reporting Texas

Madison Thompson, 13, has been involved in cheerleading since she was 4 years old. She made the team last fall at her middle school in Garland. Photo courtesy of Shannon Thompson.

Before she became a cheerleader, Madison Thompson didn’t know where she fit.

But then the 13-year-old with Down syndrome found the Cheer Athletics SuperKatz, an inclusive cheerleading team in Plano. Madison was 4 when her mother signed her up so her daughter might have something to look forward to each week with people who would care about her.

“What they did for my daughter is amazing,” said Shannon Thompson, Madison’s mother.

Madison has Trisomy 21, a form of Down syndrome that limits her athletic ability because she has underdeveloped muscle tone and poor balance. She’s flexible enough for most cheerleading maneuvers, but children like her need extra assistance from patient, caring instructors.

That’s what she found at Cheer Athletics.

At least once a week, Madison’s parents drive her about 11 miles from their home in Garland to SuperKatz practice for the only Cheer Athletics program for special-needs children. There she joins about a dozen other cheerleaders with various disabilities, from autism to partial paralysis.

The team formed in 2008. Thomas Johnson, one of the cheerleaders at Cheer Athletics, had a brother in a wheelchair who wanted to perform like his brother did. Johnson created SuperKatz with two other people at Cheer Athletics. Dozens of disabled cheerleaders, like Madison Thompson, have participated since then.

A coach named Derrick Jackson, who cheered at Southern Methodist University, took over the SuperKatz after Johnson left. Jackson coaches the team with the help of volunteer peer coaches from Texas high and junior high schools.

Samara Taper, a University of Texas at Austin freshman from Plano, was one of those volunteers. She and the other peer coaches helped Madison and her teammates with stunts, tumbling and the frustrations of learning new skills.

“By working with SuperKatz I learned to appreciate the little things in life,” she said. “Even a simple high five could make these athletes smile from ear to ear.”

Madison loves to smile. When learning difficult flips or stunts, she refuses to give up. When she nails a new skill, she wants to do it over and over.

“She would learn new skills and be so excited to show them off,” said former Cheer Athletics peer coach Chandler Cherry, now a senior at UT-Austin from Rowlett. “I remember when she learned to do a cartwheel. She just wouldn’t stop.”

Madison has been featured on the front page of Inside Cheerleading magazine in her Cheer Athletics uniform and has over 39,600 Instagram followers. Her room is full of trophies, banners and magazine covers. Bows she’s collected over the years from cheerleading events cover her bedroom walls.

Her energy and dedication led her to try out last year for the Coyle Middle School cheer team in Garland. She wasn’t selected.

But she auditioned again this year and made it. And the school district created a new auxiliary position on the squad for special-needs students like Madison.

“If it wasn’t for Cheer Athletics this wouldn’t have happened,” Shannon Thompson said.

Last October, Madison wrote a letter in honor of Down syndrome awareness month. In it, she encouraged children with disabilities like hers to never give up.

“I just want to be able to demonstrate that no matter what your disability, so long as you are given the opportunity and you work hard, you can accomplish anything,” Madison wrote. “Just look at how far I have come, and I’m not finished yet!”

Cheer Athletics has given Madison confidence, an identity and a place to call home. It’s given her strength she can carry forever.

“In every possible good way, Cheer Athletics has been a huge difference in her life,” said Thompson, Madison’s mother.

“It takes a village, and I’m glad that they are my village.”