Ashlyn Dahlke and the other members of Spirit sat in a circle and squeezed each other’s hands. The mic crackled and popped as one of the judges started to announce the final results of this year’s United Cheer Nationals in Fort Worth.
“And in first place, for the sixth year in a row… from Fort Worth, Texas, The Cheer Connection: Spirit!”
The cheerleaders of Spirit competed with what seemed like an endless amount of passion. After months of practicing and encouraging one another, their hard work paid off and they were ecstatic.
They each walked out of that competition last month in new national champion jackets, radiating nothing but passion and pride. To see them hold their shiny trophies with huge grins plastered on their faces brought tears to everyone’s eyes.
Spirit is a special needs competitive cheer squad, one of eight cheer teams at The Cheer Connection. The squad consists of 13 members, ages 7 to 18, with physical or cognitive disabilities.
Spirit was founded by head coach Holly Rascoe and gym manager Shelley Clayton. It was one of the first special needs cheerleading teams in the nation. Now, there are about 25 teams.
Rascoe was a TCU Cheerleader in college and married the quarterback, David Rascoe. She coached TCU Cheer for 12 years before starting Spirit.
Rascoe has been involved with competitive cheer for more than 25 years, and she said starting this team has been the highlight of her cheer career.
“I woke up one day and thought it would be so cool to have a special needs team for kids, where it didn’t matter what they were facing,” she said. “Whether they were in a wheelchair or diagnosed with Autism or Downs Syndrome.”
Rascoe added she did not have any prior experience with special needs kids.
“I really wanted to start one, but I had no idea where to begin,” she said. “My bible study group prayed for God to put this perfect special needs team together. Then, one random day, I met Ashlyn and her dad, Denver, at Academy.”
Rascoe had been wanting to work with special needs children, so she asked Dahlke if Ashlyn would want to be a cheerleader. He said she would love to, but she didn’t connect to other people very well.
Rascoe told Dahlke all about her vision. After a few minutes, Ashlyn was wrapped around Rascoe’s leg, giggling with eyes squinted in glee and a smile on her face. Dahlke told Rascoe that it just might work out after all.
So after three years of prayer, the group started in 2011. Ashlyn told all of her friends at KinderFrogs School, the early childhood education program located on TCU’s campus that predominantly serves young children with disabilities. Six years later, they are all still on the team.
“They are the happiest people on Earth,” Rascoe said. “They light up when they see you, and they love hugs. But the most impact is made on other people.”
According to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, participating in sports can help instill a sense of self-confidence as well as improve skills in relationship building and working as part of a team.
They jump, stunt, tumble and dance just like any other competitive cheerleading team, except at the end of every routine (both at practice and performances), they run up to their coaches for a group hug.
“They encourage one another all the time, but I think they have more impact on everyone else, and they have no clue,” Clayton said.
Spirit sent in a video to audition for NBC’s America’s Got Talent last February. The team got a callback, but didn’t make it. However, the TV show asked them to try out in person next year rather than on tape.
Meanwhile, Spirit has already started preparing to win a seventh national championship next year.