Amy Silverman: Special Olympics creates choices

March 21, 2013

Sophie Sophie and her grandmother (Photo courtesy of the Silverman family)

It was the perfect moment.

The sun was shining, a breeze was blowing, my mother and I were stretched out on lounge chairs, enjoying the sounds of the crashing waves. Amazingly, for a moment, the family vacation was family-free. I was just starting to doze off when she spoke.

“Ames, there’s something I have to say.”

My eyes flew open. Oh god. Oh no. It’s cancer. I sat up and turned to face her.

“Um, what?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant, my heart racing.

“I really think you should consider letting Sophie do cheerleading in the Special Olympics,” she said.

 I sat back and glared. “Don’t scare me like that!”

“Well, I had to get your attention.”

She got it, all right.

Here’s the thing: At 46, I still have PTSD over my high school years. I was president of the debate team, editor of the newspaper, a certified nerd long before being a nerd was cool. Against all odds I met and married another nerd, and together we had a daughter. I swore that she’d grow up to be anything she wanted to be.

And then we had a second daughter. She has Down syndrome. Funny, the universe closes a lot of doors when you’ve got developmental disabilities, but it opens one wide, thanks to the Special Olympics. When I was a kid, no one suggested I might someday play basketball or pole vault. But for Sophie, there’s a whole roster of sports for her to try – and excel at.
It’s awesome.

Except it comes with the responsibility of choosing – and as soon as Sophie was old enough to compete, I became the Goldilocks of the Special Olympics.

Speed skating? Oh, that’s way too hard. Bowling? Barely a sport, and so undignified. Swimming? Yes, when she’s comfortable enough in the pool, but not yet. Track and Field? Perfect. Sophie ran her little heart out last year and accepted her medals with pride.

But you don’t have to pick just one activity in Special Olympics; my mother knew that.

“Oh come on,” she said. “What do you care? She’ll have a blast! Sophie loves to dance!”

Yes, she does. She takes ballet and jazz and almost has me talked into letting her take tap. But cheer? No way. Not only is it a bitchy girl’s sport, I argued, it’ll literally put Sophie on the sidelines. Isn’t the whole point of Special Olympics to make Sophie the one who gets the cheers?

For quite a while, I bored my friends and family with this invented conundrum. Finally, someone asked a really good question – the only question.

“Does Sophie want to do it?”

I had to admit that I hadn’t even thought to ask.

“Hey, Sophes,” I said one night before bed. “There’s something I need to talk to you about.”

“Yes, Mommy?”

“Do you want to do Special Olympics cheerleading?”


For the first few practices, I couldn’t really tell what she thought. She was pretty quiet. Then one evening, Sophie was in the shower, and we heard her voice – quiet at first, then getting louder.

“Dribble it, pass it. We want a basket! Dribble it, pass it. We want a basket!”

She loves it. Loves the routines – which are admittedly simple – loves the uniform, the pompoms, loves her teammates and coaches.

I called my mom to report that as usual, she was right, and then we admitted we’d both always secretly wanted to be cheerleaders ourselves – and had a good laugh. Sophie is a cheerleader -- for this season, at least.

And I’m in the stands – cheering.


Amy Silverman is managing editor of the Phoenix New Times. She blogs about her daughter Sophie at

The Special Olympics statewide competition begins Friday in Mesa.