SAUGUS — Diana Ortiz’s pin-straight hair swishes against the back of her red and white cheerleader uniform as she steadies one leg and then the other on the bent knees of two teammates, readying for a pyramid pose. Once balanced, she breathes in, lifts her arms skyward in a perfect V, and breaks into a smile so wide it makes her mother tear up watching her.
Ortiz has Down Syndrome. And although there are a growing number of students with developmental disabilities participating in sports — and a cheerleader with Down Syndrome on the TV show “Glee” — there are not many real-life cheerleaders like her.
The 18-year-old senior and her teammates race back to the bleachers at the school gym, where a basketball game is into its second half. Saugus intercepts the ball and they rise to their feet. “When we say go, Go Saugus!” they boom. After the cheer Ortiz is so excited she keeps jumping up and down, pumps her arms in the air, and exchanges smiles with the cheerleaders next to her.
She has become a fixture at Saugus High School football, basketball, and hockey games over the past four years. She moves with the girls in near perfect unison. In four rows their individual forms almost blur together, the silver-striped uniform sleeves whooshing pom-poms from side to side. Their white sneakers stomp to a steady one-two rhythm.
They are one, a team. And Ortiz is beaming.
“She’s pretty much like family,” says Ashley Rolli, 14, a teammate. “She’s part of us. We would not feel like a complete team without her.”
Ortiz has no trouble performing in front of a crowd, but she goes a bit shy when talking about cheerleading. She bends her head forward, casts her eyes down.
“I love it,” she says. “I love the uniform, it’s red and white.”
Cheering makes her feel good, she continues. “I love — I don’t know. . .” she says, her voice trailing off until she is prompted by her mother, Gloria, an outgoing woman whose dark eyes shine when she speaks. Mother and daughter often dance together in the living room to routines on Diana’s favorite YouTube cheerleading channel.
“Qué te gusta?” Gloria asks her in Spanish.
“I love the poses,” Diana answers, now smiling again.
It was not an easy climb at first. Her parents, immigrants from Colombia who moved to the Boston area when Diana was a baby, looked for cheerleading opportunities for her when she was younger with no luck. Diana had been asking to be a cheerleader since she was 5 years old and picked up her first pair of pom-poms.
When their daughter started attending Saugus High School, the Ortizes convinced administrators Diana would be able to make it onto the squad. They never miss seeing their daughter at a game.
They want to give her the same opportunities as a child that they had provided her older brothers. One is now an actor pursuing his career in Los Angeles, the other a former Marine who served in Iraq.
‘I love the uniform. . . . I love the poses.’
“It’s our purpose to give her skills for her life,” says Jorge Ortiz, Diana’s father, who works for building services at Berklee College of Music.
The Ortizes love to dance and when Diana was a toddler they noticed she too moved well. They signed her up for lessons when she was 3 and she still goes to the same dance school every week for ballet and jazz classes. A wall in Diana’s lavender and pink bedroom is covered in framed photos of dance recitals through the years, all sequins and tutus.
Diana is now applying that coordination and strength — children with Down Syndrome often have low muscle tone — to her cheerleading. She’s known for having the best splits and memorizing the routines sometimes better than the other girls on the squad.
For most of her teammates, Diana is the first special needs peer they know well. It is Diana, with her sparkling brown eyes, they say, who has taught them about perseverance, about smiling on days when the acrobatics that hurl them high into the air do not work. Her teammates speak of being moved by Diana’s spontaneous hugs, “I love you” declarations, and her dancing and cheering talents — something they did not expect when they first met her.
Cheerleading is much more work than many people realize, says Jennifer Carnevale, Diana’s coach, especially as teams prepare for competitions. That means long practices for conditioning, as well as stunt training and goal setting as a group.
“Sometimes when I get aggravated and give a pep talk to try to motivate them and say things like ‘Come on!’ she will repeat and say ‘Come on!’ ” says Carnevale, an English teacher and former cheerleader. And the tension melts into laughter. “She is definitely their cheerleader.”
Being on the squad has boosted Diana’s confidence, family and friends say. She’s one of the girls. Together they belt out Justin Bieber songs on the radio on rides home after practice.
But being one of the cheerleaders seems to have raised some expectations that give her parents pause. Diana would like a boyfriend, someone to dance with at the senior prom come spring.
“Of course she wants to have a boyfriend and it’s challenging for us and some of the conversations are challenging,” Gloria says. “Around others she not only learns the good, but the bad. Sometimes it’s the words they say that she does not know the meaning of, but asks ‘what is this?’ ”
And now hearing her friends talk about college and living in a dorm, she too is asking to go. The moving away from home issue is not one the Ortizes like to contemplate, but watching Diana as a cheerleader has also been about watching her grow up.
When Diana completes 12th grade this spring she plans to stay on at Saugus High for another four years of the school’s special education program that focuses more specifically on life skills and vocational training. Diana says she is thinking about becoming a cook. Or maybe, she offers, she’ll teach preschool, like her mother.
These days there are busy late afternoons after practice or before a game in their two-story house on the edge of a Saugus cul-de-sac. On a recent pre-game afternoon, Diana lingers with Julian, one of her two older brothers. A large framed portrait of Julian in his formal Marine uniform hangs near the foyer.
During his tour in Iraq he saw intense fighting in Fallujah, one of the bloodiest flashpoints of the war. Every day he was gone Diana would ask for him. She smiles now as he strokes her hair and pulls her 4-foot 7-inch frame in for a hug, tucking her under his arm.
Diana has cheered with the squad in the stands at games for many seasons, but it was only this year that she began performing in some of the floor dance routines at halftime. It was at the annual Color Day pep rally in front of the whole school in November that Diana stood at the top of a pyramid for the first time. Bethany Larsen, one of her coaches, said the crowd went wild for her, standing and cheering.
“I was lost in watching her and crying at the same time,” Gloria recalls.
“Inside I felt like, ‘Oh God, thank you, thank you so much for this, something she was dreaming of and she did it. And for the girls who did it with her I say, thank you. It was a beautiful moment for her, the team, the school.’ ”
Watching her mother’s tears well up recounting the story, Diana leans forward and asks, her voice low, “Why are you crying?”
“Because you make us so happy,” Gloria says, looking at her.Dina Kraft is a Cambridge-based journalist and researcher. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @dinakraft.