I hardly ever mention what I’m about to disclose out of fear people will laugh at me. Looking back on my life, I have a hard time believing I did it. But the truth is, I once was a cheerleader. That’s right, a wheelchair cheerleader during my college years at the University of Illinois — even though I knew next to nothing about basketball.
I got to thinking about those heady days (late 1960s, early ’70s), because of the upcoming Paralympics, which are about as big, important and hyped as wheelchair athletics get. Things were very different back then.
When I was a college freshman, there were only a handful of wheelchair basketball teams in the U.S., and as far as I know, we were the only cheerleading squad on wheels. Other wheelchair athletics, like track and field, swimming, archery, etc., were also in their infancy as serious sport competition.
Fast forward to 2014 and it’s stunning to realize how much has changed.
Wheelchair athletes today have to be talented and committed, which was true all those years ago for the male members of the Gizz Kids, as the U of I wheelchair basketball team was called. For cheerleaders though, talent didn’t count as much as willingness and enthusiasm. It did help to have a loud voice though it wasn’t a requirement.
Our squad practiced often and got pretty good at waving pom-poms around and executing our routines, but it took much longer to learn enough about the rules of the game to ensure that our cheer actually matched the action on the court. (I remember many icy glares from the players during time-outs after a cheer for defense should have been for the offense, or some such thing.)
I’m not sure why admitting I was once a cheerleader remains an embarrassment; perhaps it’s because of the typical response I expect from the walking world: “Oh, how cute.” Truthfully, cheerleading afforded me some of the best opportunities of my life. We traveled all over the country for league and exhibition games — even visiting Hawaii. And spending hours on the road with a team of good-looking, college-age athletes was … well … shall we say exciting for a newbie coed.
Much more important, though, was what we were learning about ourselves. Many of the players and cheerleaders hadn’t known anyone our age who had a disability before arriving at the U of I. So, being a member of the team allowed us to share experiences and self-doubts with those who truly understood.
For many, it was also the first experience with independence — from parents, doctors and all those adults who knew “best” how we should conduct our lives. On campus, we quickly found out that independence had its ups and downs, but a commitment to the team and each other could steer us away from too much partying, alcohol and other substances.
Lucky for me that two of the years I cheered for the Gizz Kids ended with national championships. College doesn’t get much better than that.