VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (AP) - The cheerleaders skipped onto the basketball court, a blur of green and white with pompoms in hand and bows in their hair.
They stood straight and serious as the national anthem played that January day, one knee slightly bent, hands just so. Then they called out in high-pitched unison as the Virginia Beach Middle School girls basketball team dribbled down the court, “S-P-I-R-I-T, we’ve got that spirit!”
One girl in the second row kept glancing across the court at the far end of the bleachers, to a woman carrying a black camera bag. She seemed a little distracted, and her arms were slightly slower in darting up than the others’.
“Audrey’s nervous,” the woman with the black bag said. Annette Ibata would know - she’s Audrey’s mom. Her attention is almost always on her 14-year-old daughter, as is the camera that’s ready at a moment’s notice. That way, Audrey can look over and know her mom’s right there, just in case.
Audrey has a bigger learning curve than the other cheerleaders. She has Down syndrome and the intellectual disabilities that accompany the genetic disorder. But that hasn’t stopped Ibata from believing her daughter can attend regular school and participate in activities.
Just then, as one of the players scored a basket, Audrey leapt into the air with the other girls, one leg extended in front. She giggled, then jumped again by herself.
Across the gym, her mother giggled, too.
These moments make all the struggles worth it.
And they prove to Ibata that the naysayers were wrong about her daughter: the orthopedist who balked at prescribing orthopedic inserts for toddler Audrey, the swim coach who was supposed to accept everyone but wouldn’t take Audrey. Ibata in the end turned him down, even after he called to apologize.
But along with the negative people have come plenty of believers. The community theater troupe that cast Audrey in a production of “The Jungle Book,” for example. And the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team’s spirit squad, which started it all for Audrey.
Audrey has always liked dancing and gymnastics. From the time she was a toddler, Audrey and her family attended baseball games in St. Louis, where they lived at the time. Audrey was transfixed by the spirit squad, Team Fredbird, whose members would snap photos and cheer with her. Ibata remembers the overjoyed look on her daughter’s face as she danced and sang along.
A year and a half ago, after the family had moved to Virginia Beach and Audrey was in sixth grade, Ibata got an email from the Virginia Beach Middle School’s cheer coach, asking whether Audrey might like to be part of the squad. Ibata had an inkling that one of Audrey’s teachers had put a bug in the coach’s ear.
It took extra time to help Audrey learn the routines. Ibata filmed each one at practice so she, Audrey and Audrey’s younger sister could run through them. And Audrey wasn’t on the travel squad, just cheering at home games.
Off the court, Audrey can be a bit shy, though she’s been known to say a snarky thing or two to her brother. But when she’s leading cheers, her face lights up, and she loses inhibitions.
Ibata worried about Audrey being accepted on the squad, until she got an email from one of the mothers at the end of the season, telling her Audrey had really brought the girls together. She remembers it saying that Audrey’s enthusiasm reminded the girls of what they were doing.
Audrey hasn’t looked across the gym much during her second season. She’s become good friends with the other girls, gone to their birthday parties and invited them to hers. They get her attention during games when she daydreams or remind her where her hands should be. Lately, Ibata has noticed, she’s been reminding them, too.
Deme Malbon always makes sure Audrey’s bow is straight, and she usually finishes the adjustments with a special handshake. She’s the one Audrey is closest to on the squad, and they are in the same seventh-grade social studies class this year. She even fills in sometimes for the teacher’s aide who usually sits with Audrey.
Audrey’s classes at Virginia Beach Middle include some with special education students and others, such as social studies and science, with students at her grade level.
This integrated practice was not well-regarded when Daisy Wood, the executive director of the division’s Office of Programs for Exceptional Children, arrived in the city in the 1980s. Wood had come from a system in New York where it was an accepted method but said she was reprimanded in Virginia Beach for encouraging it.
But the city has adapted and less frequently separates children with disabilities into special education classrooms, Wood said. About 75 percent of the roughly 8,000 public school students who are identified with intellectual, physical or emotional disabilities spend at least some of the time in general classes.
Students with Down syndrome don’t have a standard education plan, Wood said. Some spend all their time in general education, some all in special ed, and others in a mix.
The division wants to keep children with disabilities “with their nondisabled peers as much as possible,” Wood said.
Audrey joined the cheerleading squad following the 2013 season and tryouts.
Deme said she had never interacted with someone with Down syndrome before Audrey. But she said she’s realized that Audrey is capable of plenty. She gets annoyed when the other girls on the squad coddle Audrey by tying her shoes.
“She’s like all of our friends,” Deme said. “It doesn’t even seem like she has Down syndrome anymore.”
Back at the gym, the cheerleaders returned to the court after a quick break between the girls’ and boys’ games. By then, Audrey’s dad, Brent Ibata, had arrived, and he slid next to his wife on the bleachers.
“How’s Audrey doing?” he asked.
“Smiley and giggly as always,” she replied.
Then it was time for Audrey’s favorite cheer. “Dribble, dribble, shoot, shoot. Take that ball to the hoop!” the girls chanted as they mimicked the actions.
The cheerleaders made their way to center court at halftime to perform a routine. Audrey found her spot in the formation, and Deme took an extra second to look back at her.
The music started. Someone in the crowd shouted, “Go, Audrey!”
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com
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