Ariel Summerlin, who was born without a left leg, marches into the inspection room with her fellow Cadets from Airport (S.C.) High School during the National High School Drill Team Championships in Daytona Beach, Fla., May 5, 2012. Photo
by Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet Command
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (May 6, 2012) -- In the ultimate showcase of
high school drill talent, Ariel Summerlin has been something of a
celebrity at this weekend's national Junior ROTC meet.
Spectators huddled to watch her perform. Cadets she didn't even
know, so moved by her skill, mugged for photos with the 14-year-old
from Airport (S.C.) High School.
"She's inspirational," said
Joshua Sneed, of Murphy (Ala.) High School. "I had to get a photo
Summerlin's knack for executing facing movements
is as sharp as any of her teammates.' Her marching ability is on par
with the rest of her platoon.
Except that the first-year
Army Cadet does it all on one leg.
Born without a left leg,
Summerlin pivots off her right and uses crutches to maneuver around
She is a rarity in a sport that demands
snap reflexes and quick pacing.
There have been Cadets with
developmental disabilities compete in the past, said Justin Gates,
competition director for the national meet. But never someone with a
Summerlin is a standout for the talent she
exhibits, not for what she lacks physically.
"To watch her
perform, you notice the crutches but not her leg," Gates said. "It's
unbelievable. Not just that she competes, but that she does so well.
What a story that can be used with other Cadets. 'Oh, you're tired?
Your legs hurt?' Read this."
Summerlin joined Airport's JROTC in the fall after
listening to her mother and uncle, former Cadets themselves,
talk of the positive impact the program had on their lives.
The way she saw it, being a Cadet was a continuation of the
"It runs in the family," Summerlin
Some of the stories she also heard her
relatives tell were of competing in drill meets, of forming
bonds with other Cadets and of pushing themselves as part of
a unit. Summerlin found the idea of competing intriguing and
decided to try it earlier this semester.
without doubters, including her mother.
want to see me get my feelings hurt," Summerlin said. "But
that drove me. I like proving people wrong."
Airport's drill coach, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Harry
Ferguson, wasn't so sure it could work. Because the sport
requires the sort of movement that can be difficult for
someone with two legs, let alone one, could Summerlin be
agile enough with her crutches to stay in step and move
quickly enough to keep pace?
The more he thought
about it, and the more he thought about his Cadet's drive,
the better the idea sounded.
"If she thinks she can
do it, let's give it a shot," Ferguson said. "She's made us
proud ever since."
Summerlin saw the opportunity to
make the squad as a personal challenge. She spent several
hours each week with members of the drill team, working on
one-on-one with some to hone her skill.
became part of Airport's unarmed inspection team, an event
that poses more mental than physical challenges. Still, she
worked to get the marching patterns down, even going so far
as to keep in step by balancing on her crutches and raising
her right foot off the ground whenever fellow Cadets' right
feet lifted up.
Summerlin's first competition came in
one of the sport's biggest, the Army nationals in March. She
was so scared, but was able to answer questions about drill
and ceremony and history that the judges threw at her.
"I was proud of myself," she said.
meets typically conclude with something known as knockout
drills, where Cadets perform drill and ceremony movements on
cue from a judge. The formations -- one is held for unarmed
and another for armed -- can include close to 1,000 Cadets
and a couple dozen judges swarming in to quickly eliminate
participants for even the slightest mistake.
Summerlin joined the formation of unarmed students. As the
pack thinned considerably, there she was, holding her own.
When the formation winnowed to a couple dozen, Summerlin
caught Gates' eye. To ensure the event's integrity, he
remembers telling a judge, "Nobody gets a pass here,"
referring to Summerlin.
The judge's response: "She's
Summerlin made it to the final 15 before
being ousted. She bested hundreds of other Cadets, including
Sneed, of Murphy High School, who earlier had been in the
"Not only was she able to do it,"
Sneed said. "But she was good."
Since then, Summerlin
worked to be part of the unarmed regulation team. Again, her
first time in an actual competition was Saturday, at the
biggest meet of them all.
Regulation drill "was tough
at first," said Summerlin, who admitted to a couple of
mistakes but was satisfied overall. "It worked me. Once I
got used to it, it was a breeze."
The most difficult
part of drill isn't the physical movement, but remembering
all the specific steps in a routine.
"If I do
something wrong, it should be pointed out," Summerlin said.
"Don't be easy on me just because I'm different."
There have been several occasions where Kayla Murphy, a
senior and the Airport drill team's Cadet commander, has
gotten on Summerlin to ensure she meets the standards.
Surprised when she first heard of Summerlin's interest in
being part of the team, Murphy said Summerlin is a
quick-learner who blossomed into one of the squad's best
"We're happy she took the initiative,"
Murphy said. "She keeps everyone wanting to do better. She's
going to be an asset to Airport. She already is."
Simply being part of Junior ROTC has made a lasting
impression on Summerlin. She said the course has taught a
number of life lessons, given her confidence and connected
her to other students who don't hesitate to be tough on her
-- which is what Summerlin wants.
"If it wasn't for
what I've learned in class, I don't think I would have the
guts to do this," she said.
Summerlin, who aspires to
join Navy ROTC in college and become part of the judge
advocate general corps someday, plans to continue with the
drill team, using the experience at the national meet to
improve her performance. She eventually wants to advance to
become a member of the armed drill team, a move that would
require her to execute movements while holding a rifle.
"It's more challenging," said Summerlin, smiling.
Ferguson describes Summerlin as an intelligent student
who is an example to others. She possesses the coordination
to control a rifle, but needs to figure a way to marry the
focus needed for specific actions with a weapon while
getting around the drill floor with her crutches.
Just give it time, he says.
"Don't tell her she can't
do anything," Ferguson said. "She will."
By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet Command
Army News Service
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