By Steve Arel, U.S. Army Cadet CommandMay 6, 2012
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 with her."
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 performance areas.
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 missing limb.
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 family lineage.
"It runs in the family," Summerlin said.
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.
She wasn't without doubters, including her mother.
"She didn't want to see me get my feelings hurt," Summerlin said. "But that drove me. I like proving people wrong."
Even 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.
She initially 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.
Service-level 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 that good."
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 same formation.
"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 marchers.
"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."