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May 12, 2022

Local Special Needs Team Competes at World Cheerleading Championships

By Lauren Lavelle

When Middletown resident Vera Piasecki entered the Cheer Dream Xplosion gym in Matawan five years ago, she wasn’t sure what to expect. As a mother of a child with Down syndrome and significant sensory issues, Piasecki was searching for an activity to keep her daughter, Hannah, active while also catering to her needs. 

There, she met Brooke Pale, the coach of Special Forces, a 12-member, coed, competitive cheerleading team for athletes with special needs. 

“When we sat down for the meeting, I said, ‘I don’t think I’m going to spend a couple $100 on the competition wear because I don’t think [Hannah will] get out there and compete,”’ Piasecki said. “And I remember Brooke turned to me and said, ‘Buy it. She’ll do it.’”

Soon enough, after attending a few practices and getting acclimated with her new team members, Hannah was up and moving, participating in cheers, clapping and cheering despite her sensory issues. 

“Four years later, she’s out there and she’s doing things independently,” Piasecki said. “It’s just amazing that when you give them the opportunity and you have somebody like Brooke that has high expectations for them and treats them not exactly like every athlete is treated but can be firm with them, they really do deliver.”

Pale, who started coaching the team six seasons ago, runs her squad like any other competitive cheerleading coach would. This includes two one-hour to two-hour long practices per week, extra practices during competition weeks and running through their routines again and again until they get it right. 

“I don’t put up with tears unless someone is hurt,” Pale said. “I’m tough, and they know I’m tough, but they know I’m going to love them two seconds later. They know if they fall, I’m going to pick them back up and give them a hug. They know I’m going to have fun with them when it’s time to have fun with them, but at the same time, they know I mean business too. You’re here to work. You’re not here to fool around. We have a job to do, and our job is to perform.”

Coaching the team also has a personal meaning for Pale. After years of struggling with undiagnosed dyslexia, she finally received the help she needed after a college professor encouraged her to visit her university’s learning center and get tested for the learning disability. 

“[They started] reading me my tests, proofreading my essays and giving me extended time,” Pale said. “I got my GPA up to a 3.5 in one semester.”

Pale’s newfound success in academics inspired her to get her master’s degree in special education so she could continue to help kids reach their full potential. 

“I didn’t want another kid to go through what I went through,” she said. “I definitely have a lot of faith in my kids. I believe they can do it. They just need the right tools to get to that end result.”

When the opportunity came for Special Forces to enter for a chance to compete in the World Cheerleading Championships in Orlando, Pale knew her kids were up for the challenge. 

“We went into this season knowing this is our goal. We want to get to Worlds,” she said. “It’s an honor [to be chosen] because they only accept five Cheer-Abilities teams to come and perform.”

A few months later, Pale received the news that she and her team were headed to Worlds at the end of April. 

“I think I’m still on a high,” Pale said. “I couldn’t tell [the kids] for 48 hours. It was probably the hardest 48 hours ever.”

Both Pale and Piasecki agree that the overwhelming support from other teams has motivated the squad immensely and has made their experience that much more special. 

“Every sport has their thing, but with cheer, it does not matter the color of your uniform, or if it’s a team you don’t even know, you have support on that mat,” Pale said. 

Piasecki added, “The crowds are just out of this world. I don’t know much about cheer, but these cheer parents are crazy. They’ve got cow bells, air horns. It’s quite an experience.”

Piasecki also had advice for parents of special needs kids hoping to find an activity that is the right fit for their child’s needs. 

“Keep trying, and have honest and open discussions with the people that are running the programs,” she said. “We have to keep our kids moving. We have to try and include them. Everywhere we go in the world, whether it’s to a restaurant, to a church, our kids don’t sit at separate tables or in different pews. We have to try and make sure that they have some opportunities to be out there in the community and experience different things.”

Follow Special Forces on Instagram @specialforcescheer.