Michelle Thelen could have gotten lost in the shuffle in the 1970s, when she enrolled at Salpointe Catholic High School in Tucson.

She was a junior, a military kid transferring in from the Philippines. School was already in full swing, and Salpointe didn't get many newcomers.

Instead of receding into the background, she secured a visible role in her new community - she tried out for the cheerleading squad and earned a spot.

"That was a turning point in my life - to be able to be a leader," she said.

Thelen, now a fifth grade teacher at Quail Run Elementary School, said she has since gravitated toward situations that allow her to help students be leaders.

Her four years coaching the freshmen, junior varsity and varsity cheerleading squads at Mountain View High School have served that purpose well.

On Jan. 31, Thelen was awarded

the Arizona Spirit Association's coach of

the year award in its 4A-5A division. More than 100 coaches were nominated for the honor, according to Kari Kratchman, the

association director.

The award is given to seasoned cheerleading coaches who regularly look for opportunities to grow, and have outstanding references from students and their parents.

Thelen thought back on the cheerleading judge at Salpointe who, decades ago, gave a newcomer the chance to lead.

"Maybe in a roundabout way, I hope I can be that person to some of the kids I interact with," she said.

Thelen's squads cheered when she received her award at the association's weekend competition. They passed her plaque around for closer looks.

That same weekend, the junior varsity squad earned a first-place award, and the varsity squad earned a second-place award.

Recently, the varsity team was ranked fifth in the state in an Arizona Intercollegiate Association competition.

Few squad members seemed surprised by Thelen's honor.

"She's like everyone's second mom," said Ashley Martin, a Mountain View senior who has taken cheerleading lessons from Thelen since age 7. "We see more of her than we do of our parents."

Thelen said she encourages her squad members to take their positions as role models seriously by volunteering in the community and making good decisions.

Martin said she remembers her coach offering encouragement when "role model" felt like a tall order - when Martin, now a senior, was one of only three sophomores on the varsity team.

"She just pulled me aside and said 'You're strong enough to do this,'" Martin said.

Sometimes it was hard relating to the older students - sometimes so hard that Martin might have given up if not for her coach.

"There've been some times when it's been really rough," she said. "She's always had the right words to say to make you come back, and make it enjoyable."

Martin said her coach encourages her squads with positive feedback.

When the varsity squad had to change its routine recently because of a cheerleader's sprained neck and others' bouts with cold viruses, Thelen pointed out benefits of learning the new positions, Martin said.

Kristine Sullivan, a senior,

said Thelen is generous with encouragement.

"At practice one time, she just told me that I was a true cheerleader and that I had spirit," Sullivan said. "She told me I'm doing a great job being captain and being a role model."

Cheerleading is all about leadership, in Thelen's books. That's why it contains the word "leading," she said.

"I think our society needs more teenagers who feel empowered to be leaders and to work for being positive role models," she said.

She helps in that effort by impressing on her team members that what they do matters.

"They're very visible in the local community," she said. "The younger children recognize them in the grocery store."

Once, a squad member offered to volunteer in Thelen's fifth grade classroom. Thelen hooked her up with "one of those little fifth-grade boys who were ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the cheerleaders."

Thelen said she liked seeing the connection grow between the teenage role model and her admirer.

"That's what makes our communities stronger," Thelen said.

When teenagers make bad decisions, Thelen said, those decisions often are connected with low self-esteem and lack of empowerment.

And 20 years from now, they will be in charge, Thelen said.

"There's so much good that can be

done in the world," she said, "if they believe in themselves."

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