Shelley Singer rediscovers passion for cheerleading amidst diagnoses

In the 10 years Shelley Singer served as a cheerleading head coach at Chaparral High School, her favorite moments were neither her three national championships nor the state title.

Rather, the defining moment in Ms. Singer’s career came the night she gave Betsy Niccoli the chance to be a cheerleader.

In partnership with the Special Olympics, Ms. Singer created a night for special needs students to be able to cheer alongside her team under the Friday night lights.

After performing, Ms. Singer awarded Niccoli and other special needs students with medals and trophies.

“A parent called me the next day and said ‘thank you for providing an environment that our children with their special needs can come and feel like they’re a normal student,’” Ms. Singer said. “The best point was they slept with their metal and they slept with their trophy and they woke up with it the next day, saying what the greatest moment it was for them.”

In Ms. Singer’s tenure, she made countless memories, but it was a student who wasn’t on her team whose imprint has never left her.

Ms. Singer now faces a challenge unlike any she ever faced on the cheer mat. Two years ago, Ms. Singer was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis, a degenerative neurological disease with no known cure.

Multiple Sclerosis is a result of miscommunication, or lack thereof, between the brain and the nervous system causing the body to attack itself. It affects vision, nerves and basic human functions.

“When she told us, we almost didn’t believe it,” said Ashley Singer, Shelley’s 27-year-old daughter. “It was hard to imagine that something like this would impact my mom.”

Shelley Singer has decided to learn from and appreciate time she gets to spend doing what she loves.

“I was go go go go go and never stayed home to relax ever,” Shelley Singer said. “[The diagnosis] has forced me to do that and reevaluate the things that are important.”

Ashley Singer said her mom was always two steps ahead of everyone else, now she has to be proactive so that she can still do what she loves everyday.

“Sometimes I think she shouldn’t coach (so she can) take time to focus on herself,” said Madison Singer, Shelley Singer’s 20-year-old daughter. “But I know that the girls keep her going.”

Although Shelley Singer initially thought retiring would be best for her health, she felt she still wasn’t done coaching.

“I thought that by retiring I would be giving myself a break,” Shelley Singer said. “When this opportunity came up, I thought maybe this is a way that God was telling me that I’m not fully done with this, that I have something else still in me to offer.”

Shelley Singer quickly realized that one of the important things in her life is coaching, prompting her to take a new cheer coaching job at Sandra Day O’Connor High School in Phoenix not long after leaving Chaparral.

Shelley Singer’s daughters Madison and Ashley both said it is difficult to know their mom is in pain and struggling every day, especially because they are out of state and can’t be with her as much as they may like.

“There’s a respect there,” Shelley Singer said. “They saw me put my heart into it and they’ve been able to express to me and tell me so often how proud they are of me for the things I did.”

Shelley Singer remains in contact with many of the girls she has coached over the years. It is evident the lessons she’s teaches her teams stay with them far beyond the few years Singer coached them.

“A lot of the girls check on me and care about me. Some of them take me to doctor’s appointments,” Shel-ley Singer said.

Shelley Singer has not let her diagnosis dim her vibrant, bubbly personality. Nor has she let it take away her true passions.

“Sometimes it’s more about the little things throughout that year than it necessarily is the title,” Shelley Singer said. “There’s all those things that impact their life and I get to have a piece of that, which is really rewarding.“

Editor’s Note: Ms. O’Carroll is a student journalist with the Walter Cronkite School of Journal-ism and Mass Communications.

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