Special Olympics Gymnastics team headed to summer games

Matthews – Mint Hill Weekly

MATTHEWS – Connie Mulroy beamed with excitement as she discussed her first-year Special Olympics Gymnastic team’s accomplishments.

“They totally rocked qualifiers,” the Matthews resident said. “I took 19 (athletes) and all qualified for the state summer games.”

After only five weekly practices, 19 children with disabilities from Mecklenburg and Union counties stepped up to the beam and onto the floor to perform routines at the Central Gymnastics Qualifiers in High Point on April 19.

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Gill.

Mulroy said her team was the largest by far, making up more than half of the regional qualifying team. She also said this was the first Special Olympics Gymnastics team to represent Mecklenburg County in eight years.

“The level of this sport has dwindled,” she said. “I hope to bring back the love of the sport and inspire others to get involved.”

Mulroy worked as a competitive gymnastics trainer at International Sports Center (ISC) in Matthews from 1998 until 2003, when she had her daughter, Brielle, who was born with Down syndrome and a heart condition and needed extra support. So, she gave up her career to focus on taking care of Brielle.

She started Charlotte Allstar Cheerleaders (CAC) Angels cheer team for children with disabilities at the ISC in 2007 to provide an athletic option for children like Brielle. The Special Olympics Gymnastics team spawned from her competitive cheer teams, with 90 percent of the gymnasts also competing with CAC Angels and Diamonds.

“I just wanted to get back to gymnastics,” she said. “I knew I had a good team from the Angels and Diamonds cheerleaders I’d been coaching for eight years.”

Photo courtesy of Vanessa Gill.

The cheer season ended in February, and gymnastics practice started March 17.

Laurie Maddex’s 8-year-old son, Zeke, of Waxhaw, has been on the CAC Angels cheer team for two years and was delighted to join the gymnastics team.

“He has excelled so much through the cheer team that it was a good entry point,” she said. “Plus, he loves to be the center of attention – he feels 10 feet tall when he puts on that uniform and goes on the floor. This is a big deal for him to hear people cheer and watch him.”

Zeke, who has Down syndrome, has improved his physical strength and balance and his ability to follow directions and wait his turn, because of his participation in cheer and gymnastics. Maddex said Zeke couldn’t run or jump when they brought him home from a Ukraine orphanage at 4 years old, but he’s improved significantly over the past four years.

Maddex also said this experience has taught her to continue giving Zeke opportunities without limitations. Due to the lack of equipment, Mulroy’s team couldn’t practice some routines beforehand and had to learn them the day of qualifiers. Maddex said Zeke learned the pommel horse just before competing and nailed the routine.

“I think that as a parent we try really hard not to put limitations on him and to advocate and fight for him, but sometimes we don’t expect him to do the things he can do,” she said. “We had no idea what expect, so we couldn’t limit him; we just stood back and watched him grow and couldn’t be more proud.”

The gymnastics team consists of 19 boys and girls 8 to 19 years old with conditions like autism, Down syndrome, Williams syndrome and blindness. All qualified, but only 18 will compete in the 2015 Special Olympics North Carolina Summer Games on May 29 and 30.

Mulroy will have a female gymnast competing in rhythmic gymnastics with a floor ball routine, and 15 female gymnasts competing in artistic gymnastics, which includes vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercises. Two male gymnasts will compete in still rings, parallel bars, high bar, pommel horse, vault and floor exercises.

“They’ve been working really hard,” Mulroy said.

Mulroy also commended the volunteers for their support. Competitive gymnasts, who train at ISC, have jumped in and assisted during practices to help the kids learn the routines, she said.

“I couldn’t have done it without them, and they’ve gained a lot from the experience,” she said. “They get to see a different side of the sport and how these kids are working hard at obtaining a small skill.”

Email Mulroy at connie.mulroy@gmail.com for information about Special Olympics Gymnastics.

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