WOONSOCKET, RI (WPRI) – A Rhode Island squad of cheerleaders is headed to a world championship next week thanks to the inspiration from a teammate who can only be there in spirit.
Shannon Heil was the red headed bundle of energy you would see in the middle of a Superior Cheer Lady Level 5 routine. The Woonsocket native was also the one often tossed into the air, with her smile blazing the entire time.
“She loved cheerleading,” her father Brian says with an obvious lump in his throat. “And to see this group of individuals look up to my daughter and accomplish such great things. It’s amazing.”
Shannon was known for what she called her fierce symbol. Behind her clinched ring finger and pinky, and extended pointer angled against her forehead, was a reputation for hard work, determination and being fierce, like Shannon.
“It stops you for a second and makes you think,” her best friend Will Scurry says. “Get to know as many people as you can. Get to do as many things as you can, while you’re here.”
“She just had this ability to embrace people without actually wrapping her arms around them,” her dad says. “She just lit up people’s lives.”
“Because you never know when you’re going to go,” Scurry adds.
He was in the passenger seat, with Shannon driving and their friend Markel Torres in the back seat.
“All I remember is Markel yelling, Shannon, and then feeling an impact,” Scurry says.
The Route 102 head-on collision in Burrillville on July 11 killed Heil and Torres, who were both 19, but somehow Scurry walked away.
“I remember telling myself in my head to stay relaxed, stay relaxed, stay relaxed. The car stopped and I opened the door,” he says. “I unbuckled my seat belt and got out of the car. It’s just hard to lose that kind of friend. I still talk to her every day. I actually write her Facebook messages.”
But there were not enough tears to stop the cheers. With Scurry as one of their coaches, Shannon’s team worked harder than ever to accomplish her goal to make it to a World Championship. They were underdogs, until they took the stage and won the Midwest title in Ohio earlier this month.
During the season after every routine, and especially after they advanced to “worlds” with their win in Ohio, each one offered that fierce symbol of their inspiration.
“My little girl is an angel somewhere,” Heil says. “And that she’s speaking to these girls and inspiring them every day to come to the gym and to push harder because you will accomplish great things.”
He tells us her influence goes beyond cheer leading. One of his daughter’s friends who was not planning on going to college, now is. Two other friends started a non-profit company in Shannon’s memory. And altogether, they credit the fierce spirit of the friend they lost, for motivating them to accomplish goals they never thought they could accomplish.
“They say I hope Shannon is proud of me,” Heil says. “And I say absolutely Shannon is so proud of you because you’re doing more than you’ve ever done before. Shannon found ways to live life to the fullest and really have joy in her life, and now they are too.”
The Superior Cheer team heads to Orlando, Florida to compete against a dozen other teams in their division on April 26.
“Winning would be just great, awesome, perfect,” Scurry says. “But we know we’ve already done what Shannon wanted us to do.”
And her dad is confident the impact will ripple beyond their trip to the championships.
“You see all these changes in peoples’ attitudes, people changing their lifestyle and making changes in their lives to push themselves, to drive themselves. You can’t write a script like this.”