By Liam Miller

SHY AnnCatherine (CORR) Heigl, who has Down syndrome, shocked her family when she came home one day saying she wanted to become a cheerleader

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Videographers: Adam Gray, Lauren Knapp
Producer: Liam Miller, James Thorne
Editor: James Thorne

Known as ‘AC’, she had already exceeded expectations playing tennis at school, but always said she hated being in front of crowds. 

Now 20, AC, from Indianapolis, USA, has made a huge leap in overcoming any nerves about big audiences. Her family believes she has become the first ever collegiate cheerleader with an intellectual disability.

Collegiate basketball is part of the illustrious league of American university sports and unearths the star players of the future. And the team’s cheerleaders are part of the competition and glory. 

Determined AnnCatherine cheers for Virginia’s George Mason University (GMU) ‘Patriots’, who play in the NCAA First Division and currently sit third in the Atlantic 10 Conference.

“I love to cheer,” she said. “It feels good inside. “I’m a flyer, so I get lifted up in the air. I like everything, I like being up in the air, I like being on a team. 

“I was shy and I didn’t like being in crowds before.

“I was nervous, but I’m not nervous now when we run out in front of everyone.”

AC’s sister, Lillie, 22, is studying law at Syracuse University, New York. She said: “When I saw AC out on the university court for the first time, I cried.

“I remember being at my college basketball games and seeing the cheerleaders and it clicked in my head, that’s what my sister is doing at a different university, and my sister is doing that with Down syndrome. 

“That’s such a big deal. She’s the first person to do that and it’s so cool.”

AC’s decision to be a cheerleader was entirely independent and still baffles her family.

“It’s kind of a mystery to us and we don’t know where she got the idea,” said Lille. 

“We were really surprised, because we knew from performances in elementary school that she didn’t like crowds or big audiences.”

The family believe AC’s earlier experience playing tennis helped her on the path to cheerleading.

Lillie said: “She wasn’t a top player but she could play to a certain standard, and we learned that she had this competitive side.

“She would get mad if she lost or get ticked off with her doubles partner if they made a double fault, even if she double faulted the whole game.

“Just seeing her be competitive, being part of a team, was her greatest achievement so far.”

Aged just 13, unwavering AC tried out for the cheer team at her middle school. One coach suggested she could be a cheer ‘buddy’ - a kind of mascot supporting the real cheer team. 

That wasn’t enough for AC or her mother, Laura Heigl, 55, who successfully fought for her place on the full team.

AC would progress from there into her high school cheer team, but then she upped the ante on her wish list, announcing in her second year at high school that she wanted to go to university and also to be on the college cheerleader team.

“We just didn’t think it was possible,” said Lillie. 

“When you think of college basketball and cheerleaders, you don’t really think about people with Down syndrome in that scenario because it’s not what we are used to seeing. “

AC enrolled for college and was accepted by GMU on their LIFE programme, a course that aims to give students with intellectual disabilities and apprenticeships for real jobs.

Using the skills she gained on her high school cheer team, she tried out for university squad and made the cut.

University roommate Isabella Mccarthy Womeldorf, 20, said: “When she got in to the cheer first team, I was so excited. 

“You can see it’s helped her to develop in a lot of ways. It’s helped her to handle being in a bigger crowd, she can speak up for herself, make sure she’s on time for things, tell people she needs to practice and plan a schedule.”

Now Lillie hope her sister can inspire other people with intellectual disabilities.

She said: “There’s a general perception that if someone finds out their child has Down Syndrome, they are almost supposed to mourn their child, that they won’t be able to do lots of things like drive, live independently.

“I think it’s important for everyone to see AnnCatherine, going to college as a university athlete, to know someone like her can have a live a quality, full life.

And she thinks AC’s achievement should lead to a change of perspective about the involvement of people with intellectual disabilities in sports.

“A lot of people assume that people with intellectual disabilities don’t want to participate in sports,” she added. “But I think we would see many more people like her in sports if there was better access and a change in attitude. 

“I think people might interpret shyness or a lazy day as not wanting to do sports at all.

“When we were growing up, there were definitely cold days in Indianapolis when I didn’t want to go out and run on the track. 

“But our high school coaches taught us that discipline is important in sports, and sometimes everyone has days where they don’t feel like it.

“We had to go out and run, and so did AnnCatherine. She didn’t get a special pass because she had Down syndrome and said she wanted to skip it.

“When I look at my sister, I don’t see someone who has become a cheerleader despite having Down syndrome. I see someone who has broken though the barriers society has placed before her, because she has Down syndrome.”