Like any good cheerleader, UAA’s Michaela Brewer has a fine sense of rhythm, tempo and timing, dancing effortlessly to the beat of whatever hip-hop music bumps through the arena. But unlike her teammates, Brewer has never once heard a crucial element of her cheerleading performance.
When she was a year old, Brewer went deaf after a bout with spinal meningitis. While she lost most of her hearing, what Brewer didn’t lose was her love of dance. That love helped her excel as a cheerleader at East High, and it helped her when she decided to go out for the team at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
“I’m a girly girl,” she said before a performance at the Great Alaska Shootout on Tuesday. “I can’t play basketball, I can’t play sports. But I can be involved in cheerleading. It seems to be a fit for me.”
Brewer uses an interpreter to communicate with her coach and teammates. The interpreter signs the name of the cheer, and Brewer takes it from there.
“I follow the other cheerleaders and I’ve memorized the movements,” she said in an interview, conducted through her interpreter.
Brewer uses sight clues to stay in sync with her teammates. During shows, the only clue fans have that Brewer is any different from her teammates is her intermittent signing between routines.
UAA cheer coach Tonya Carney said Brewer made the team based solely on her abilities as a cheerleader.
“She had to earn her spot on the team, and she did it,” Brewer said.
UAA provides two interpreters for Brewer at a cost of $120 per hour. Tony Houston, UAA assistant director of recreational sports operations, said that if someone with a disability is capable of joining an activity, under the federal Americans with Disabilities Act the school must provide accommodations.
“If that person is qualified to do what they’re doing, we have to,” he said.
And Houston said Brewer is more than qualified. When Houston first watched tryouts this year, he said he couldn’t pick Brewer out as the team’s lone deaf member.
“You wouldn’t know,” he said.
Brewer went to high school at East and the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington, D.C., before enrolling at UAA this year to study business computer information systems. She hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree, and said she’d like to start a small business with her husband.
But that’s all in her future. For now, Brewer wants to focus on the sport that’s been her love since childhood.
“My mom was a cheerleader,” she said. “... I guess it’s kind of my thing.”
As a “flier,” Brewer is often called upon to be thrown into the air during stunts, or stand atop pyramids with her teammates as the base. UAA cheerleader Jazmine Williams called Brewer “fearless” and among the best she’s seen in the air.
“She’s one of the most outgoing fliers I’ve ever met,” Williams said.
Instead of using verbal counts to let Brewer know when she’s about to be tossed into the sky or dropped into her teammates’ arms, the squad has worked out a silent count, much like a quarterback and center in a hostile football stadium.
“We’ve kind of got a system worked out where we count and I can feel it when they’re moving their hands,” she said. “They’ll go, ‘one, two, three’ and then I’ll cradle.”
Brewer said the freedom she feels while doing stunts is her favorite part of being a cheerleader.
“I really like the flying part,” she said. “The higher, the better.”