Cheryl Angelelli is not a woman who is short on accomplishments. She is a decorated swimmer and Paralympic medalist, a seven-time world champion, holds two world records and 15 American records and has even wheeled across the Great Wall of China. But recently she took on a new challenge at the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. — ballroom dancing lessons. But even more amazing is how Cheryl serves as a powerful example of the mind’s ability to overcome physical obstacles.
A 1983 diving accident where she struck her head at swim practice left Cheryl in wheelchair with no use of her hands and little leg function. She was away from competitive swimming for 14 years, focusing on her college career and pursuing freelance journalism. After graduating from Oakland University with a bachelor’s degree in communication, Cheryl was offered the opportunity to report on the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. Watching the athletes inspired Cheryl to return to the lanes and realize her childhood dreams of swimming at an elite level at the Paralympic Games.
It wasn’t long before Cheryl joined other Paralympians in Sydney at the 2000 games as one of the top five swimmers in the world. This is also where she met assistant swim coach Shawn Kornoelje, whom she would later marry in 2002.
With Shawn’s coaching, Cheryl earned two bronze medals at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Greece, two silver medals from the 2008 Paralympics in China and several world championships. As a Paralympic athlete, Cheryl traveled to more than 20 different countries and swam on six different continents. This exposure to different cultures where ballroom dancing was popular piqued her interest in dancing. After retiring from competitive swimming in 2013, Cheryl’s passion for performing and curiosity about ballroom dancing brought her to Fred Astaire Dance Studio of Bloomfield Hills.
Cheryl began taking dance lessons there in late 2014 and was comfortable right away. Students came up to her, introduced themselves, asked questions, and made her feel great about being there. Though she was initially intimidated by the different style of performing than what she was used to, Cheryl felt immediately welcomed into the dance community by her peers and teachers.
Another aspect new to Cheryl was performing with a counterpart. Her dance partner, Sergio Sanchez, studied in Ecuador, where he completed his thesis exploring ballroom dancing with partners in wheelchairs.
“Sergio pushes the envelope in our choreography and has never considered my wheelchair an obstacle,” she said.
During their lessons, Sergio will get in her wheelchair to try out routines from Cheryl’s perspective. In February, Cheryl and Sergio performed formally for the first time at the Sweetheart Dance hosted by Fred Astaire Dance Studio of Bloomfield Hills.
“I’ve been having the time of my life,” said Cheryl, who has recently begun participating in group lessons and purchased eight more sessions with the team at Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Bloomfield Hills. “I will absolutely continue taking classes.”
Cheryl has enjoyed the benefits of combining a fun activity and exercise with a friendly dance community. She definitely recommends ballroom dancing to those living with a disability because it supports cardiovascular fitness, strength and flexibility.
Her advice for anyone thinking about ballroom dancing, “go for it, you’ll never know what you’re capable of if you don’t try.”
Watch her beautiful debut to Ed Sheeran’s hit, Thinking Out Loud…