Christina Brown didn’t start coaching the Cleveland Pop Warner cheerleaders this year with expectations of reaching the National Pop Warner Cheerleading competition at ESPN Disney. They ended up there anyway.
At the outset of football season, Brown just wanted to get everyone involved and having a good time – including one cheerleader born with spina bifida and confined to a wheelchair for routines.
The Cleveland team not only won local and regional competitions at the Jr. Peewee 1 level (basically the jayvee level within the 8-11 age group) and took fifth place in its division, the team Brown called an amazing group united in a season in which they – and those who watched – learned a lot.
“Their spirit – they had the biggest hearts in the world, and I thought they deserved it,” Brown said. “Not just because of their performance, but because of the way they came together.”
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A focal rallying point was Kylei Gartin. Gartin was born with spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spinal cord doesn’t form properly. She required immediate surgery at birth; doctors doubted she’d ever walk and feared she might have cognitive effects.
“She’s literally been taking physical therapy since she was two months old,” her mother Tiffany Gartin said. “The first couple years, we didn’t know (what she’d be able to do).”
But Gartin grew into an ‘A’ student, she said, and though the fourth-grader uses ankle braces and crutches to walk, she blows people away with her attitude.
“She’s just one of those kids that comes in the room and has a smile that just lights up,” said Jill Stauffer, whose daughter Hayden also cheers on the team. “She doesn’t see her disabilities, she doesn’t see anything she can’t do.”
A path to Florida
Many of the girls started cheerleading because they wanted to root on their brothers who play for Cleveland’s Pop Warner team. Gartin falls in that category.
She also falls into an assertive category.
“She’s one that says I’m here and I can do what I want to. She’s always had that attitude,” Gartin’s mother said. “Even the girls on our team, she told them, ‘I’m Kylei and I have Spina Bifida. If you have a question, ask me about it, don’t stare at me, I’m just like you are.’”
That proved more than enough to establish her as part of the team. Brown’s daughter Kari had been friends since kindergarten, and that Gartin wanted to cheer and threw herself into it didn’t surprise her at all.
“I thought, ‘I know Kylei‘s personality, and I’m going to include her in everything we do.’ She wasn’t going to be sitting there doing nothing,” Brown said. “She probably would have gotten mad at me if I didn’t have her doing everything she did.”
Gartin used what Brown called one of the loudest and best voices on the team to call all the transitions as she maneuvered her chair around in concert with the choreography. Brown said it wasn’t hard to incorporate her movements into the routine.
A lot of the girls were first-time cheerleaders, so Brown just wanted to get them working together to learn the routines and have fun. But then they went to a regional competition for a few teams. And they nailed it.
“They got out there and just did an awesome job they just executed everything beautifully,” Brown said. “They came off in tears because they did everything so well.”
At the regional competition encompassing six states, they again won the medium-sized team division of Jr. Peewee Level 1 in Raleigh. There were three levels and three size categories at the competition in Florida; only four teams competed in their division as not all cheerleading teams are willing to travel.
So the team went to ESPN’s sports complex at Disney headquarters outside Orlando to compete against teams from across the nation.
“It was pretty amazing,” said Stauffer, whose son had played in an exhibition Pop Warner football game there the year before.
Kylei was joined by her father (a Raleigh police officer and former Marine), mother and brother on the trip.
“It was awesome. Everybody was so nice,” Tiffany said.
They finished fifth of 13 in their category in Florida on Dec. 9, capping a ride the 18 girls who made the trip won’t forget.
Brown knows that with some of them aging out of the level, the same group will likely not cheer together again.
“I think they all learned a lot, about life in general,” Brown said. “They genuinely were friends, and I think that was the best part of it all. I miss them already.”