Written by: Annie Blanks, Pensacola News Journal
The Santa Rosa County SunRayz brought home some shiny new hardware from their recent trip to Special Olympics Florida State Summer Games — gold medals.
The 18-person cheerleading team — all made up of Santa Rosa County residents ages 8 to 30 — brought home the top title from the statewide cheerleading competition, marking the team’s first gold medal in the three years it has competed at the state level. They competed against three other teams at the event last weekend in Orlando.
“It’s fantastic, especially since cheerleading is really new here in the Panhandle for Special Olympics,” said Michael Stone, director of Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties. “They’re really the first (Special Olympics) cheerleading team that’s ever been here. We’ve grown from six athletes and partners to over 20 right now, which is a really good look as to what’s happening in both counties as far as new athletes coming to Special Olympics.”
The Santa Rosa County SunRayz, a Special Olympics Florida cheerleading squad, brought home their first gold medals at the Summer State Games in Orlando. (Photo: Courtesy of Robin Poling)
The squad’s coach, Robin Poling, said she was thrilled for the team to finally win a gold medal. They practice once a week, every week since January, and took home titles at the local and regional levels before making it all the way to state.
“It’s such a rewarding thing,” Poling said. “You have kids who would never be included in any sport, but the big thing about Special Olympics is the unity.”
The squad’s routine consisted of a stunt sequence, tumbling passes, dancing and a cheer. The team is a Unified team, meaning it consists of athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.
The Santa Rosa County SunRayz, a Special Olympics cheerleading squad, brought home their first gold medals at the state Special Olympics Summer Games in Orlando last weekend. (Photo: Courtesy of Robin Poling)
The squad consists of both boys and girls who have varying levels of abilities. Some stand in line with pom poms to add to the cheers, while others do front rolls or cartwheels.
Lyz Bryant’s 13-year-old son, R.J., who is on the autism spectrum, had a difficult time fitting in when he and his family moved to town, Bryant said. But Poling convinced her to have R.J. join the cheerleading squad, and since then, he has thrived.
“He’s had a rough couple of years since we moved down here, and Robin talked us into getting him on the cheer squad just to get him around kids his own age with issues like his,” Bryant said. “And they really saved his life. It’s not a joke when I say that. They legitimately saved his life. He was in a really bad place for a while, and now he’s doing amazing.”
She went on to praise the team’s hard work. “They went to state last year and won silver, and they had their eye on getting gold this whole time,” she said. “There was some really good competition, so to see their hard work pay off was emotional to say the least. I couldn’t have been more proud of these kids.”
Special Olympics Florida programs in Santa Rosa and Escambia Counties offers 17 sports and counting, available to special needs athletes ages 8 and over.