When 13-year-old Audrey Chisholm goes to the library, she looks for books on cheerleading.
When the Homer Glen, Ill., teenager is on YouTube, she's watching cheerleading videos. At school, she teaches her classmates cheerleading moves.
Audrey, who has Down syndrome, has had challenges and setbacks in her quest to be a cheerleader. When she was working out with a previous team, she wasn't selected to compete. But three years ago, she found her niche with the Mokena Burros cheerleading team, and this past week, Dec. 1-7, she was competing with the team at the Pop Warner National Cheer & Dance Championships in Orlando, Fla.
"This is such an important thing for Audrey," her mother, Jody Chisholm,, said of cheerleading. "It's what she wakes up in the morning and looks forward to. When you have an athlete that is so focused on one thing, you know that they're going to do amazing, because it's their passion."
Reached by phone at Disney World, where she and her teammates were enjoying themselves before competing Thursday, Audrey said she was excited.
"Our hotel is so awesome, and I love to cheer," she said.
"Can you tell her what your heart does when you get on the stage?" her mother said.
"My heart moves faster when the music starts," Audrey said.
"And she gets to fly. Is that the best part?"
"Mmmm-hmmm!" Audrey said.
It's not known how many children with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder that causes intellectual disability and developmental delays, compete as cheerleaders in recreational leagues, but there don't appear to be many.
Audrey's head coach, Christine O'Donnell, said she's been coaching since 2004 and has never encountered a cheerleader with Down syndrome on a recreational team.
"But we're a recreational cheer program, and we're all-inclusive," O'Donnell said. "When we have girls join our team, we work to get them to the top level."
Audrey's team, the junior varsity Burros, took first place in their division at the 2018 Mid-America Spirit Championship at Northern Illinois University in November, O'Donnell said. That qualified them for nationals, where they were to compete Thursday.
Audrey's mom said the Burros welcomed Audrey from the start. When Chisholm contacted O'Donnell about joining, O'Donnell said all they had to do was sign up. At first, Chisholm was wary: the Burros were a very strong team, and Audrey was the new girl.
"You'd think that everyone would be raising an eyebrow: 'Is she going to help us win a second state championship, or is she going to pull us down?'" Chisholm said. "But I'll tell you, we walked in, and within a day, all the girls were embracing Audrey, and they all wanted to be her friend. These girls mean so much to me, and they mean so much to Audrey."
Audrey practices with the team four hours a week, and O'Donnell said she pushes her, just as she pushes all the girls.
"Audrey is your typical 13-year-old girl," O'Donnell said. "She works hard. She plays hard. She gets a little sassy, just like the rest of the girls, but she's eager to please, and she catches on quickly. Often her mom will take a video of something (she's learning), and two days later she comes back to practice, and it's mastered because she goes home and she works that hard."
Chisholm said she's worried about what will happen next year, when Audrey ages out of the Burros organization. Chisholm said Audrey, who has the intellectual development of a third-grader, has made great strides with the team; she can do a back handspring with a coach to spot her, or provide minimal help. But she's not ready to compete for a spot on a high school cheerleading team.
"Now, I'm going to be emotional," Chisholm said, starting to cry. "I really don't know what is next."
Still, as the Burros enjoyed the Magic Kingdom theme park, working in tandem to keep Audrey from seeing characters that look like animals because mascots terrify her, Chisholm emphasized the positive.
"These 23 girls are going to be the leaders of tomorrow," Chisholm said of Audrey's teammates. "And they're going to know what it's like to have a friend with a disability and to be protective of them. Through these 23 girls, the world will be a better place."