Brielle Mulroy is jumping, tumbling and flipping her way into the record books in North Carolina’s amateur athletic community.
The 12-year-old has Down syndrome.
According to her coaches, Brielle is the first integrated gymnast to compete in an AAU state competition. She recently placed first on bars, second on floor and third all around in the bronze novice category. Integrated competition allows athletes who have disabilities to compete against others who don’t.
Brielle’s team from Perfect Balance Training Center in Charlotte, near Matthews, placed fourth overall.
Down syndrome is a chromosomal disorder that typically includes low muscle tone, a trait detrimental to traditional gymnasts.
But Brielle’s mother, Connie Mulroy, a former Oklahoma state gymnastics champion now turned coach, didn’t see any reason her daughter could not compete. She formed a special needs cheerleading team when Brielle was 5, and her daughter has been cheering ever since. Last year, she enrolled Brielle in gymnastics.
“With Down syndrome, everything she does in the gym takes five times longer because of cognitive differences and low muscle tone. Muscle to mind memory is much slower processing, but it is achievable,” Connie Mulroy said.
Suzie Sanocki and Hannah Mulvihill, co-owners of Perfect Balance, say Brielle has brought a new dimension to the gym.
“We brought Brielle in on a trail basis one year ago and allowed her to try our AAU program. She mimics the behaviors of the kids she’s around. She stays on task, works really hard and the other kids have embraced her. I’ve watched her teammates embrace this child and love her. She’s one of them,” Sanocki said.
Connie Mulroy praises the coaching staff.
“It’s not easy coaching a special needs child. Sometimes she doesn’t want to work. They have to be good at redirecting her and knowing when to push her. They don’t give in. They treat her like everyone else,” Mulroy said.
Health issues have plagued Brielle during the past nine months. She has had two unexplained seizures. Connie Mulroy said Brielle’s her love of gymnastics helped with her ability to bounce back.
“When she woke up from a coma, she couldn’t wait to get out of the hospital so she could get back to the gym,” Connie said. “She bounces right back because this is what she wants to do. It’s helped her recover faster and the fact that she can return so quickly is amazing.”
Sanocki says Brielle’s determination is contagious.
“Everybody in the building admires her incredible tenacity. She had a seizure in February but returned and competed in the state championship in April. I don’t know many athletes that would have done that,” Sanocki said.
Last fall, Brielle was a member of the sixth-grade Porter Ridge Middle School football cheerleading team and also cheered for the Carolina Cobras, the league that pits Charlotte firefighters against Charlotte police officers for two football games each year.
She recently competed in the Special Olympics gymnastics competition, an event that has returned to the state after a seven-year absence thanks to her mom’s persistence and coaching. Mulroy runs that team through Charlotte Exceptional Youth Athletes (CEYA), a nonprofit she established to raise money so special needs athletes can take gymnastics in an integrated setting.
Sanocki said just as the sport isn’t for every typical child, it’s not for every special needs athlete either. Each child and each situation must be evaluated.
As her Perfect Balance team moves up a level to silver novice, Brielle is moving with them. That means training will be more intense and routines more demanding. But Brielle is committed.
“You’ve got to have the right blend of parent who is willing, child who is willing, coaches and teammates who are willing, and teammate parents who are willing and understanding. With Brielle, we have it all, “ Sanocki said.
Melinda Johnston is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
To find out more about gymnastics and cheerleading opportunities for children with special needs visit www.ceyathletes.org or email Connie Mulroy at email@example.com