Hundreds of nervous cheerleaders fill the hallway just outside the arena at the Dallas Convention Center. Pacing, practicing and praying.
One even runs to the trash can, as nerves get the best of her. And at that moment you get a vivid portrait of just how intense the pressure is at the nation’s largest cheerleading competition.
But 16-year-old Brittany Lowe is focused. Relaxed even. She’s got this.
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"I am not nervous," she assures her longtime cheer coach, Elizabeth Lalouch, with a slight smile.
Maybe that’s because Brittany has scaled mountains much higher than this one. Born with Down Syndrome and two holes in her heart, she endured four surgeries in her first few years on earth. Hip surgery forced her into a wheelchair when she was 11 and made it even less likely that she’d ever be a cheerleader.
But “she fell in love with it from the second she started (at age 5),” says her mom, Cindy Lowe.
And now, nothing brings Brittany more joy than performing and competing with the Texas Cheer Allstars — a team for special needs children that was established 11 years ago in Carrollton, Texas. (OK, maybe seeing her big brother, Rossi, who is away it college, comes in a close second.)
In so many ways, Brittany is a typical teenage girl. She loves One Direction, and eating lunch with her friends at school. She barely tolerates her younger twin brothers. And she plays a fierce game of Uno — don't even think about making her draw two cards.
Down Syndrome will never define her.
Brittany has tried out for the Hebron High School cheerleading squad three times, and was recently asked once again to be an honorary cheerleader on the JV squad. Two years ago when she told her parents and coaches that she was going to land a back handspring, well, they knew it would be pointless to try to persuade her otherwise.
“I think that surprised all of us,” says Jaycey Evans, one of Brittany’s coaches with the Allstars. “Because you don’t see a girl with Down Syndrome wanting to do a back handspring.”
She’s had her spills, Brittany’s dad, Ross Lowe, admits, “but we put ice on it and move on.”
There are more mountains to climb, and back handsprings to land.
When she finally takes the floor at the National Cheerleading Association's All-Star National Championship in Dallas, Brittany is front and center, poised to show the world just what she can do.
Her coaches hope all those hours of practice will pay off. Her parents know they already have.
“That’s her stage,” says her dad. “The moment she gets on the floor at a cheer competition, every time, every time I lose it.”
Who can blame him.