DODGE CITY — Sierra Gardner has a firm handshake and dances like no one is watching. For a young woman in the prime of her life, little else matters as much.
Gardner was born with Down syndrome, but she lives to dance. Diamond Athletics is where the 22-year-old from Ashland hones her ability and where head coach Valerie Heston gives her the opportunity to perform solos in diamond dance exhibitions on stage and in front of live audiences in places like the United Wireless Arena.
For Gardner, whose favorite song right now is "The Greatest Show" from the 2017 movie "The Greatest Showman," to entertain is to listen to her heart, and to dance is to speak out.
"I like to get the crowd moving," she said.
Gardner is one of about 120 athletes who train at the facility. Director Valerie Heston has elevated the Dodge City Diamonds cheer team to the top 10 in the nation.
And while Gardner chooses not to participate in competitive cheerleading, she exemplifies the Diamond Athletics mission statement: "Our goal is to create strong, self-confident members of society through the vehicle of competitive cheer."
Instead, she practices various forms of dance, including ballet and freestyle, with Heston and fellow coaches Baleigh Munsell and Abel Olivares one hour every week.
"She needed something to do with her time after graduating from high school," Heston said. "Dancing gives her a whole new outlook on life. I push her a lot, and she rises to the occasion every time."
Heston, who is a community liaison for Russell Child Development Center, has plans to start an all-disabled competitive cheer team for ages 3-18, free of charge to participants.
In the 14 years since she opened Diamond Athletics, Heston has trained many different disabled children, but never all together. The building is wheelchair accessible and parents can drop the athletes off or stay and watch their progress.
Standing at the barre in her tights and leotard, Gardner watches herself in the mirror and assumes every position until each looks correct, then breaks free into a style all her own when she hears the music of "The Greatest Show."
Gardner sings along to the lyrics while soaring across the dance floor.
"Ladies and gents, this is the moment you've waited for. Been searching in the dark, your sweat soaking through the floor.
"And buried in your bones there's an ache that you can't ignore. Taking your breath, stealing your mind, and all that was real is left behind."
For more information about Diamond Athletics, call 620-371-7070 or email email@example.com.