Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Blind cheerleaders, wrestlers gather in Tennessee for school championships

From The Tennessean:

Cheerleaders and mascots from rival high schools gathered in a huddle and shouted chants in unison. Some wore thick glasses, others kept their hands on teammates' shoulders and at their feet lay a few walking sticks.

"We're all friends," said 17-year-old Ashley Tilton, cheerleading captain for Kansas State School for the Blind. "This is a really good time for us to socialize with teens like us."

Tennessee School for the Blind hosted the North Central Association of Schools for the Blind Wrestling and Cheerleading Championships on Jan. 23 for students from Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee and Wisconsin. About 150 legally blind athletes competed for trophies and gold-plated plaques printed in Braille.

Many students are not only visually impaired but also have other physical and learning disabilities.

Arkansas School for the Blind wrestling Coach Patrick Nixon said cheerleading, wrestling and other sports build camaraderie and confidence among the teenagers.

"The teaching process is very much the same, it just takes a lot of cooperation, a lot of group work and peer-on-peer help," said Tennessee School for the Blind assistant cheerleading Coach Allison Nannemann, also a teacher for the visually impaired. "But we still have high expectations."

Like traditional high school sports teams, many of the squads and teams have tryouts. To teach moves, cheerleading coaches said they use an eight-count and words to guide. Wrestling coaches teach touch wrestling, where wrestlers must remain in contact with their opponents throughout the entire match.

"It's hard because of our visual impairment which we all have but each is different. We have to accommodate for the totally blind and use hand-over-hand motions," said Tilton, whose vision is limited because she has no iris, a condition called aniridia.

"Me doing this stuff and getting my mind off of it helps a lot," she said.

Boys and girls participate in the cheerleading squads and wrestling teams.

Hannah Willis and her boyfriend, Ryann Adams, both cheer and wrestle for the Tennessee School for the Blind.

"I never cheered or wrestled when I could see," said Willis, a 16-year-old from Cookeville. Two years ago, a brain tumor put pressure on her optic nerves and ended her vision, she said.

With the help of her sighted guide and Adams, who has partial vision, the sports have restored Willis to "normal life" and brought out her personality, said her father, John Willis.

"They just tell me to put my arms up in a 'V' and if I am wrong then they move my body to correct me," she said. "I've learned patience and how to obey and follow directions. It's positive and makes me happy to work with other kids," she said.

"And don't forget the winning," interrupted her cheerleading Coach Kelly Benton.