Keely Good extended her arms over her head, took four steps back, bowed her back and exhaled.
As “Keely” chants from teammates bounced off the walls of the Main Elementary School gym, Keely, wearing glasses and hair pulled back in a ponytail, took off. Slow, small, calculated steps. As she approached the blue tumbling pad placed on the floor, she lunged forward. Both her hands touched the mat, legs scissored through the air. A near-perfect cartwheel. She finished the gymnastic move with a round-off.
More applause followed.
“I get a little tired (when I do cartwheels),” Good said.
Good is one of four Kodiak High School special education students on the cheerleading team — a first for the program that energizes fans with cheers and halftime routines at basketball games. Morgan Griffin, Hanna Moody and Kyra Parker are the other special education girls on the team.
“They feel like they are a part of something now, which is really good for these girls because it is hard for them to develop friendships,” said Christy Good, Keely’s mother. “It takes a special group of girls to make this happen.”
Christy Good orchestrated the special education students joining cheer. She started the process during the summer and by the start of the school year the girls had made the team and were on the football sideline cheering for the Bears.
“It’s new. I’ve never done this before,” Griffin said. “I wanted to join because of my friends.”
What’s the best part of being a cheerleader?
According to Griffin it is “the dancing and the cheers.” Her favorite move is the toe touch, while Moody likes all of them.
The 17-member team learns a new routine each week. Routines are posted on the team’s Facebook page, which gives the cheerleaders an opportunity to practice at home. The stunts are modified for the special education girls.
“I memorize (the routines). I practice some at night and some in the morning,” Griffin said.
The team rehearses together four days a week after school. Kodiak High School sophomore Annora Virgin has enjoyed helping the four ladies at practice. She often pulls them away from the group to give one-on-one instructions.
“They bring more teamwork into it, because we are all working together to help them learn the dance,” said Virgin, who has been cheering for four years. “It shows not just us, but the town that anybody can do this.”
Virgin said she has seen the confidence of the four girls increase throughout the season.
“When they first came, they were scared to try new things and the things they are doing now they get super excited and they love doing it. It’s fun for them,” she said.
Performing in front of crowds still terrifies Keely Good.
“I shake,” she said.
Team captain Kaelie Polhemus said having athletes with intellectual disabilities on the team has helped her better understand their world.
“It really puts things in perspective that there are people out there who have disabilities,” the senior said. “A lot of people didn’t know that these girls could cheer and that they had the capabilities to do it until we let them try.
“It is nice having them. They are such sweet girls. We cherish having them on our team. I feel like it makes us better people.”
Shannon Polhemus, Kaelie’s mom and first-year cheer coach, said the school district has been supportive of the four girls being on the team.
“I hear from the superintendent all the time on how great the program is,” the coach said. “Coaches need to be open-minded and know that they do all the same things, just with a little bit of modifications.”
Christy Good noted that the girls feel included, not just on the team but also in the school.
“Breaking barriers is important for kids who are in self-contained classrooms,” Christy Good said. “It gives them that confidence … anything is possible.”