Auburn special needs cheer squad focuses on winning trophies

Gymnastics Center team takes first place at USA Spirit Open
By: Matthew Kimel, Journal sports editor
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There’s only one thing Michaela Young looks forward to all week. 
It lasts only one hour. But those 60 minutes she gets to spend with her peers have formed lifelong friendships and a networking-support group for her parents. 
Young, a 19-year-old who lives in Auburn, is one of eight girls who make up a special needs cheer squad that meets every Thursday afternoon at Auburn Gymnastic Center. 
The ladies recently traveled to UC Davis for the USA Spirit Open, where they unveiled their new routine in front of thousands at the UCD Pavilion and won a first-place trophy.
Members of the Auburn Elite Cheerstarz range from ages 8 to 19. Some of the team members have mild learning disabilities, while others have developmental delays and occasional panic-driven anxiety. 
Despite their troubles, the girls are all capable of performing cheer routines and gymnastics in a disciplined fashion. And they enjoy doing so. 
“She loves it,” said Linda Schafer of Colfax, whose daughter Sami, 11, jumps for joy when talking about her experiences with Cheerstarz. “What’s so special about this is it’s their thing. They have older siblings that do soccer, do basketball, are in events that they get dragged around to that they can’t participate in because of their issues.
“So this is something they get to do. They’re the stars, their siblings come and watch them.”
In Sami’s own words, she said, “I really like it so much. I enjoy that we have a new routine.” 
Sami and the team intend on winning more trophies in the near future. 
“Yes, yes are we!” she said, ecstatically leaping and smiling.   
Though the Cheerstarz perform in front of large crowds, they never get intimated out on the big stage.
“I wasn’t even one teeny, teeny bit scared,” said Sarah Butters, 14.
The team also features London Keller (9 years old), Lauren Mohar (10), Hannah Smith (8), Glorrie Thompson (8) and Brooke Thomson (10). 
“We’re all good friends,” Sami said, “marvelous friends.”
The girls are coached by Haley Christenson, who just recently graduated from Mesa Verde High School and will soon be attending Sierra College. She did gymnastics competitively for 10 years before she began cheering for the Auburn Gymnastic Center’s Elite Cheer and her high school. 
Christenson, who was born and raised in a gym and has been working with the girls for three years, considers being the coach of Cheerstarz a hobby. 
“I enjoy coaching them,” she said, “and it’s such a rewarding thing to coach them.”
Christenson said the girls are really easy to work with and, for the most part, listen to what she tells them to do. When the girls are cooperative, she rewards them by teaching them new tricks and skills. 
And Christenson, who works with other squads at the gymnastics center, doesn’t give this team any preferential treatment. 
“I don’t treat these girls any differently than I would treat a normal cheer squad,” she said. “These girls, I make them condition whether or not they listen to me. If they listen to me they get rewarded. I work on their gymnastics, keeping their skills tight and their arms in the right position. I think everybody should realize they don’t get treated differently, they get treated the same.” 
Cheerstarz was established four years ago. This is their third year competing. Some five competitions are held in Davis, Sacramento and Stockton from late fall through spring. 
The program started at Auburn Gymnastics Center after owners Nathan and Natalie Otis were granted funds and started the non-profit 501c3 Fit for Life Gymnastics Inc. They’ve been able to offer scholarships to more than 200 kids in five years, Natalie Otis said, including the special needs team. 
“Auburn Gymnastics Center wasn’t intimidated by special needs kids,” Natalie Otis said. “We embraced and welcomed them.”
Parents of the team, who also hail from Rocklin and Newcastle, are glad the Otises did. 
“The parents all understand where each other are coming from,” Schafer said. 
Said parent Gina Thomson: “It’s the kids’ therapy session for an hour.”
Cheerstarz will compete again on Feb. 17 at the Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. 
Asked whether the squad is going to win another trophy brought a smile to Sami’s face right before she shouted:
Reach Matthew Kimel at Follow him on Twitter @matthewkimel