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Extraordinary Athletes: Minico cheerleaders compete despite personal challenges
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Extraordinary Athletes

Extraordinary Athletes: Minico cheerleaders compete despite personal challenges

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RUPERT — Kaibree Pratt has been on the Minico Cheer Team since her freshman year. She is often seen with a big smile on her face and her service dog by her side. What many people might not know is her service dog, Scout, is there to help her cope with severe anxiety.

“Being out in groups of people and at school is really hard for her,” Kalibree’s mother, Cami Pratt, said. “Her service dog has provided her some skills and tasks to manage her anxiety when she’s in those groups.”

With severe anxiety, Kaibree can quickly become overwhelmed in certain situations. Some triggers include being touched, loud noises, needing to trust others, the thought of getting hurt and unfamiliar locations.

As a “flyer” — the cheerleader who is thrown into the air during stunts — Kaibree sometimes has to contend with all of these triggers at the same time.

“We’ve had to learn how to accommodate certain things with cheerleading so she can do it,” her mother said.

So why join a sport that touches on so many of her triggers?

Kaibree wanted to learn new skills and become part of an athletic family. When she saw the attitudes of the cheerleaders, she knew this was what she wanted to do.

“I liked how confident they were,” she said, “and how they were always excited no matter what was happening on the field.”

So Kaibree got to work on minimizing her triggers.

Through multiple practice sessions with her stunt group, Kaibree has learned to build trust with her teammates. During games, she wears earplugs to block out the noise of the fans. Unfortunately, the noise is too much for Scout to be able to concentrate, so her service dog isn’t with Kaibree during performances.

Head cheer coach Kenya Aguilar remembers Kaibree joining the team as a shy and quiet girl who was hesitant to interact with the other cheerleaders.

“Throughout the (first) year, she just blossomed,” Aguilar said.

Kaibree began to feel more comfortable with the team. She competed in one of the routines in her freshman year. This year, with the growth and skill that Kaibree has shown, she will compete in all three of the team’s routines.

“I think cheer has really helped Kaibree learn to be a little bit more open with herself and more comfortable,” Aguilar said. “She’s got such supportive girls around her that are the first to stand behind her.”

For Pratt, seeing her daughter succeed is a joy to watch.

“Anxiety is something she’s always going to fight with,” Pratt said. “Being able to come up with the skills and management to overcome that, it’s exciting to see.”

A different set of challenges

For freshman Brooklyn Rodgers, the obstacles she’s overcome cannot be eased with the aid of a service dog.

Brooklyn has Trisomy 4p, an anomaly that resulted in the partial duplication of her fourth chromosome. As her mother, Sarah Rodgers, explained, Brooklyn was born with an extra piece of genetic material.

“It’s like Down syndrome but on a different chromosome,” Rodgers said.

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The condition has caused physical and developmental delays in Brooklyn. Her pituitary gland and thyroid do not function, causing her body not to produce growth hormones. She also has scoliosis, which created a 72-degree curve in her back.

Brooklyn has already undergone four back surgeries, eye surgery, and surgery on her stomach. This spring, she will receive a spinal-fusion surgery to help with her scoliosis.

“There are less than 100 documented cases of (Trisomy 4p) in the world,” Rodgers said.

Because of her physical limitations, Brooklyn cannot compete in even light-contact sports. She’s very social and wants to be part of a team, so she decided to try cheerleading.

“This fits her personality,” Rodgers said. “It gives her something to do and a way to be involved instead of just coming to school and leaving. She gets friends and family and a cheer family.”

Cheerleading has its own physical requirements, but the team has worked to find ways to include Brooklyn that fit her needs. They have modified stunts so Brooklyn can stand on the thighs of other girls and still be in the air without being too far off the ground.

During individual tumbling, Brooklyn runs across the floor instead of performing back handsprings so she can still get a turn on the tumbling pass.

Brooklyn tried out for the team like the rest of the girls, submitting a video that showed her performing the cheers and dance moves.

“Brooklyn is a ray of sunshine,” coach Aguilar said. “We knew we needed her on the team.”

Brooklyn only shows up to one of the 6 a.m. practices each week, but when she arrives she’s ready to go. Aguilar said Brooklyn walks in with a huge smile and immediately starts asking what they’re doing and when they can get started.

“Even with limitations, Brooklyn gives it her all,” Aguilar said.

Building bonds

Rodgers never thought she’d see Brooklyn competing on a team. For Brooklyn’s entire life, Rodgers was told that she would never be able to read, write or walk. Now she’s memorizing cheers and performing on the sidelines.

“To see the girls include her and accept her for who she is, it’s really amazing,” Rodgers said.

It’s not just Brooklyn who has benefited from being a part of the team. Aguilar said that having Brooklyn on the team has taught all of the girls valuable lessons about persistence and acceptance.

“The impact she’s had on the girls in realizing that at any level, or whatever limitations you have, you can still give a sport your absolute all,” Aguilar said. “That’s what Brooklyn does.”

Being able to watch the team come together and grow is a blessing to Aguilar. Having Kaibree and Brooklyn on the team only strengthens the bonds the two girls share.

“We have an abundance of differences on the team,” Aguilar said, “and it is a joy to watch them mesh and help each other.”

As for the girls, having that extra support system is huge. High school can be intimidating and difficult to navigate, especially when dealing with your own challenges as well as the pressure of school.

But knowing you have 20 girls by your side can make the experience just a little less frightening.

“I’m going to do this for as long as I can,” Kaibree said. “I like the family aspect of the cheer team. It’s really nice, and doesn’t make you feel as lost in high school.”

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