GREENWICH, Conn. – Melissa Mansi pushes her special needs cheerleading team during weekly practices at Spirit Zone Too in Greenwich. After four months of working with the team, Mansi is surprised at just how far it has come.
“At first I evaluated them and saw what their capabilities were,’’ Mansi said. “I talked with their parents, to see what they could do and what they couldn’t. I had to learn about how far to push them. The way they’ve been progressing has been awesome.”
Mansi's team, the Alexandrites, consists of sisters Mary Ellen, 21, and Melissa Weaving, 18; and J.J. Walton, 6. Assisted by five athletes from the Greenwich High cheerleading team and a cheerleader from Hamden, the Alexandrites have been practicing for two hours each week to prepare a two-minute routine for its first event next month in Hartford.
Anne Aguiar-Asta, co-owner of Spirit Zone Too, created the team last summer. “This is something I've always wanted to do since the very first time I saw a special needs team in Atlanta. ... It seemed to come together for us when Melissa came to work for us as she would be perfect with her background and education with special needs children.”
Mansi is a senior at Southern Connecticut State University who is studying special and elementary education. She recruited the cheerleaders and acquired the necessary certifications to work with them. The hard part was creating the routine.
“It’s hard for anyone to get a two-minute routine,'' Mansi said. "They have to remember counts and motion and music. At first, it was challenging to get them to remember the motions over and over. We constantly drilled them on it. Then the music came in, and it was like ‘Oh my God!, They’ve got it!’”
Part of the difficulty was the range of skills on her team, which has three special needs athletes and six typical athletes. Mary Ellen and Melissa are much older than J.J. but had a little experience. “Molding them together was hard,’’ Mansi said. “Mary Ellen and Melissa have great personalities that pull J.J. in. And he listens to them.”
Aguiar-Asta has been impressed with the work of Mansi, who is clear, firm and knowledgeable. “I like everything about her coaching style,’’ Aguiar-Asta said. “She makes them feel special. She has the patience of a saint.”
Cheerleading also provides a unique thrill of achievement, Aguiar-Asta said. “They enjoy being part of a team,’’ she said. “They also enjoy performing for the crowd. They’re excited every time they learn something new.”
The Greenwich High cheerleaders provide a perfect complement to Mansi’s instruction. There are two girls for every special needs cheerleader. “They came in with their arms wide open,’’ she said. "They’re a huge help. The special needs kids love them. They’re excited to see them.”
Like many coaches, Mansi was skittish after a recent practice. But now, she’s convinced it is performing with the precision she envisioned.
“Now I’m not worried or anything,'' Mansi said. "I know they can do it.”