Name: Craig El, Co-Owner
Gym: Ultimate Athletics
Locations: Wauconda, IL, and Joliet, IL
Size: 23 cheer teams, four dance teams, and four special needs teams
Gym size: 34,000 square feet (Wauconda); 8,000 square feet (Joliet)
The Debrief: The Ultimate Athletics Gems program first launched in October 2008 and is now in its seventh season. Both cheer and dance are offered for the gym’s 45 special needs athletes, along with the opportunity to compete at Cheersport and perform at local exhibitions.
The Dish: You have to ensure that you have individuals trained in special needs working with the team so that you know how to handle behaviors, social skills, motor development and physical skills. You also need to decide what you are equipped to handle—wheelchairs, hearing impairments, autism, walkers, medically involved athletes (i.e. seizures). If your facility can’t accommodate a wheelchair, you need to be upfront about that in your marketing. You also need to have paperwork filled out for the athletes so you know about their diagnosis, as well as any medical and sensory implications that can affect their abilities on the cheer floor.
Sometimes it is necessary to consult with physical or occupational therapists or doctors to ensure that things you are doing are safe for athletes. I have been fortunate to have a great director that is very experienced and she handles the screening process for me.
You need to teach to each athlete’s abilities and constantly work to take them to the next level. We develop a routine based on the level we want the athletes to achieve by competition season. We will often do obstacle courses or stations when working on skills, and each athlete will have different instructions for the course/station based on their skills that need to be worked on.
The special needs teams have weekly assigned practice times, just like our other teams. We ensure that the special needs teams always have the floor space that they need for their practices. We also try to keep the special needs teams days/times for practice consistent year to year to make overall scheduling easier.
It’s definitely growing but it’s not a profitable part of our program. We are not really looking to make money on these programs. The money we are able to pull in, we put back into the program. We have attempted to get sponsors in the past and typically raise anywhere from $300 to $700 in sponsorship money. We utilize fundraising in order to get funds for travel expenses, or uniforms.
We also recruit “buddies” from our all-star cheer teams. Our ultimate goal is for the athletes to have as much independence as possible on the floor. We have heard from some incoming all-star athletes that part of their decision to join was because of the special needs program. We have had 10 buddies from our program go on to study special education in college. They have called this a life-changing program for them.
Having a special needs team will be one of the most rewarding things you can do! Make sure to do your research into special needs and ensure that you have knowledgeable staff working with the team. Don’t look at this solely as a cheer team—look at it as a life experience for the athletes. You need to be focused on all the ways their lives change by the work you do with them: improving their social skills, improving their body strength, improving their attention skills.
When a parent approaches me crying after a competition and says, “My daughter is 42 years old and has never walked up a flight of stairs before because she was too afraid. How did you get them to do that?” or when a parent hugs me and says, “After the work you’ve done with my daughter, she is able to go to the grocery store with me for the first time ever,” I know that I have done a great job. These teams are so much more than cheer to these athletes and families. Have incredibly high expectations—these athletes will absolutely rise to them!