A giggly group of girls having lunch in a school cafeteria Saturday talked about music and friends and practice, giving no indication they'd just won gold medals at the annual Special Olympics basketball and cheerleading competition.

Their lack of pretension following the event, at Apollo Middle School on Tucson's south side, comes from participating for the fun of it all.

The girls work hard at cheerleading practice, and their coach expects them to do their best. But fun and camaraderie are the ultimate goals for the members of the Sunnyside Unified School District team.

Sunnyside has had a cheer team made up of middle and high school students for more than a decade, said Lori Chrisman, head of the district's delegation. For a while, Sunnyside's was the only cheer team, and officials had to split the group in two to give athletes someone to compete against.

But this year another cheer team participated in the competition for students from Tucson and surrounding communities.

"We did good. It was definitely exciting," Yanelli Bedoya, 14, said. "It definitely gets you nervous, and then you're out there and it's done."

This is her first year on the team. Her sister, already a cheerleader on the team, talked her into joining.

"I like the coaches and the cheers and the competition," said Daniella Vazquez, 14, who has been on the team for five years.

Her sister, Melissa Vazquez, 11, took a break this year after cheering for several years, but she came to the competition to support her sister.

"All the uniforms and the hair putting up and things" was too much, Melissa said.

The team's coach, Veronica Garcia, creates the routines, but the girls aren't shy about offering input, especially about the music. Justin Bieber: No! Lady Gaga: Yes!

Another winner: British singer and model Cher Lloyd. The girls are excited to perform at the state competition next month to Lloyd's "Want U Back."

"When they go out and perform they are a little scared, but this will teach them how to be social ... and if they try and do their best, that's all I want," Garcia said.

After the cheerleaders performed, other athletes, including Sunnyside's Emilio Yow, 10, tested their abilities in the basketball skills competition. Yow came away with a gold medal for shooting baskets. His secret: "Use more force from your legs" to launch the ball instead of using only the arms.

Emilio's grandmother, Elsa Cocoa, has seen a change in her grandson since he joined Special Olympics last September.

"He's more outgoing. He didn't used to talk a lot."

Emilio's school doesn't have a Special Olympics team, so his grandmother drives him into Tucson from their home south of town to practice. The drive is worth it, she said. "He's bloomed."

In the gym, the team from Marana Unified School District won its first basketball game and was prepping to face Sunnyside. This is the second year Marana has competed with a "unified" team, said teacher Susan Sharkey. It's a concept promoted by Special Olympics to field school teams with students from general education and those with intellectual disabilities.

"It really promotes an atmosphere of acceptance and inclusion," Sharkey said. "I'm completely sold on it."

Andrew Shkolnick, who is almost 16 and a rookie forward, said: "It's pretty fun working with unified partners. They play with us, they are our teachers, our friends, our coaches. We all work together on the team."

Chandler Hayes, 18, one of the partners, said the reward is the friendships she's built with fellow athletes.

"When you walk into the classroom everybody's happy to see you," she said, "and I'm happy to see them, too."

On StarNet: See more Special Olympic photos at azstarnet.com/gallery

Up next

The next competition for Tucson-area Special Olympians is track and field April 6 at Sunnyside High School.

More than 500 athletes will compete in 24 events, ranging from the 10-meter assisted walk to the 1,500-meter run. Field events include shot put, turbojav throw, long jump and softball throw.

The deadline to turn in medical consent forms is Feb. 25.

For more information, contact area director Holly Thompson via email, Holly@SpecialOlympicsArizona.org, or telephone, 207-1382.

Did you know

The first Special Olympics Arizona competition in 1975 consisted of a one-day track-and-field event with 100 athletes and 20 volunteers. Today, Special Olympics Arizona offers 22 sports, 170 programs and five statewide competitions. Nearly 13,000 athletes and 11,000 volunteers participate each year.

Go to www.specialolympicsarizona.org to learn how to donate, volunteer or compete.

Source: Special Olympics Arizona

Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at kmatas@azstarnet.com or at 573-4191.