They took the floor with pom-poms swinging, hair done up in ribbons and white sneakers tied tight – the blind cheerleaders holding their partially sighted friends by the elbow.
Once on the mat, they stood with hands on hips as the crowd of 100 people whooped and banged their hands together, applause they could feel rising to the rafters. And when the judges’ call came – “Begin! – eight teen-age girls from the Governor Morehead School jumped and pumped fists with all the attitude of a show pony.
Antoinette Ray lost her sight to glaucoma at 13. Three years later, she can turn cartwheels and perform splits in the Governor Morehead gym.
“I like being loud,” she said, GMS painted on her cheek in blue.
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Kimmie Richter, 16, has a prosthetic left eye and blurry vision in her right. As a GMS cheerleader, she can show friends with even less vision how to perform an upward V or a front lunge.
“I like the sassiness,” she said. “I’m really sassy a lot.”
For the last three years, the state’s flagship school for the visually impaired has fielded a cheerleading squad of eight girls, all of them at least 13 and with varying levels of sight. They practice every Monday and Wednesday on the 150-year-old campus where they spend the week, coming from Burlington, Hickory and towns scattered across the state. Twice, they’ve cheered for halftime shows at Enloe and Broughton high schools in Raleigh.
“It means the world,” said Shonny Williams, their coach. “Some of them come from schools where they’re the only blind ones there. So they have no friends. No social life. They’re ostracized. Here, they’re stars.”
On Saturday, the GMS team competed in a regional tournament that drew cheerleaders from New York and Maryland, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, filling the bleachers of the Governor Morehead gym. Many found their way inside using white canes or on arms of parents, but once they reached the blue competition mat, they turned somersaults and formed pyramids.
“Is North Carolina in the house?” roared the announcer. “Is New York in the house? Is Maryland in the house?”
Three years ago, when she lost her sight, Antoinette struggled with depression, said her father, Everett Deloney from Burlington. While we talked, the teen started dancing as a car drove by with its windows down and the radio playing a New Edition song. She joked that being interviewed would make her rich and famous, and her father comically suggested they cut her allowance.
Cheering as a blind person isn’t hard, she told me. It just takes some adjustment. While she’s learning the moves, Antoinette pictures herself as a sighted person, jumping and kicking around the gym.
“We are the Chargers, and we’re here to say,” she demonstrated, running through the routine, “we’re going to represent in a major way! Dominate and devastate, we’ll blow you away!”
At the end of the tournament, the Governor Morehead School took second place. But it hardly mattered, and I don’t mean that in the everyone’s-a-winner tone you might use to console a little leaguer who struck out swinging. I mean that every teenager deserves the chance to practice and compete in front of a crowd, to clap a teammate on the back and hear applause, to get a picture taken in a uniform with a proud parent’s arm around a shoulder.
Everyone, for at least a moment, needs the chance to feel sassy.