An eight-person team of mirthful teens danced their way into the hearts of those in attendance at Tucson’s Sporting Chance Arena last month.
The squad, comprised of students from Marana High School, joyfully went through their routine, hit all of their marks and earned a well deserved standing ovation from the crowd.
The performance was at the Special Olympics Arizona Coronado Area Basketball and Cheer Competition on Feb. 10, and was the culmination of hours of hard work and practice.
Team members Ruby Valenzuela, Nicole Stamatelatos, Kara Nelson, Johnny DeStefano, Sasha Artemieva, Sofia Urias, Cierra Sanchez and Lizzy Finkbeiner all did their share in the competition, resulting in a first-place finish in the four-team event for the Tigers.
For competitors like Stamatelatos, winning gold at the event was a dream come true, especially since she did it with her best friends.
Performing the team’s choreographed dance routines has become second nature for her, though there’s nothing wrong with a little improvisation on the day of the event.
“[My favorite part of dancing] is making up dance moves, and doing cheer moves,” Stamatelatos said. “Making them up and just doing our best. We just try our best, it doesn’t matter if you’re good or not.”
The dancers all have their favorite music; Stamatelatos enjoying Taylor Swift songs, while Finkbeiner enjoys the groove of Michael Jackson’s chart-topping hits from the ‘80s.
For Finkbeiner, the long hours spent working on the team’s routine are worthwhile, given the end result.
“I would like to say, I want to be the best I can and win,” Finkbeiner said. “And even though it’s all fun and games, for me it’s very important to get the gold medal.”
The joy of dance is shared by students and teacher alike, according to Amanda Sobus, who’s in her third year running the cheerleading program at Marana.
Sobus loves watching the energy and confidence that dance has inspired in her students, and how much they learn from the events.
“It’s an amazing opportunity for our students to be able to compete in athletics,” Sobus said. “And just seeing how excited they are when they win. As soon as they announced that we were first place, these kids were so excited, jumping up and down and screaming. It was an exciting moment to see how proud they were for their hard work, of getting that gold medal.”
The third-year teacher and coach were thrilled to see her students compete in front of their loved ones, which adds further pride to their first-place finish.
Sobus said her favorite part was performing in front of their parents, who were able to see the fruits of the teams hard work and long hours of practice.
“We were choreographing the routines and every day we were practicing them, so to see them do it and then succeed, it was an awesome experience,” she said.
The Marana cheer team wasn’t the only group of teens from MHS to bring a medal home at the competition. The 13-person basketball program placed third overall.
The team, coached by teacher Brett Secemski, was able to band together and bring home a medal, which is all that Secemski can ask for.
“The highlight for me is watching these kids and seeing all that they can achieve,” Secemski said. “Anyone at any ability is able to compete. Special Olympics doesn’t discriminate, so whatever level they’re at, anyone’s able to compete, and that’s the best part is to watch the joy that these guys get. And it actually brings a lot of joy to our lives as coaches, it’s the highlight of what we do at the school.”
The fourth-year Marana teacher had a simple message for his team before their games on Feb. 10, reiterating the true meaning of Special Olympics competition.
“Before we started, we told the kids, ‘Hey, we’re winners as long as we’re having fun and we’re smiling,’” Secemski said. “So, we told the kids to not look at the scoreboard. We’re going to encourage you, as long as you’re trying your best and you’re having fun and smiling, we’re all winners.”