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No boundaries: Area students push, punch, and leap over gender divide

Photo by Dave Wallis/The Forum

FARGO - Sara Laliberte, Jada Johnson and Taylor Sandhofner are not afraid to stand out in a crowd. In fact, they seem to embrace it.

All three students participate in what could easily be considered nontraditional sports for their genders.

Laliberte of Fargo is a football player. Johnson of Casselton, N.D., is a boxer. And Sandhofner of rural Chaffee, N.D., is the first male to join the Central Cass dance team.

They are all friendly, outgoing students willing to push, punch and leap over gender boundaries. And they have supportive families to back them up.

Pink socks & ponytail

Laliberte is a fifth-grader at Bennett Elementary School in Fargo. The 10-year-old started playing football because her two older brothers play and they encouraged her to join the school's team.

"It's kind of fun being the only girl," she says. "At first, I kind of didn't fit in, but then the boys started to encourage me and now I'm just like one of them."

Well, almost.

Laliberte is hard to miss on the football field in her bright pink socks and with her long pony tail.

Still, she says sometimes members of opposing teams are surprised to find out she's a girl when she takes off her helmet at the end of a game.

Most people are supportive of her decision to play and she receives a lot of applause when she's on the field. But there are still occasional comments to the contrary.

One parent told her the first time she plays she'll get hurt and she'll never want to do it again. She also heard that she'd cry and go home to her mommy.

"That was my first year and this is my third year," Laliberte says. "I'm not going to listen to them. I'm going to do what I want to do."

When Marilyn Laliberte, Sara's mom, first heard that her daughter wanted to play football, she was proud.

And when she first saw her daughter in full uniform, "I thought, 'She's the bravest person I've ever known,' " Marilyn Laliberte says.

Even so, Laliberte said it took a whole season to get used to seeing boys pushing and tackling her daughter, who plays offensive tackle and switches positions on defense.

Her coach said Sara's done everything right along with everyone else.

"She practices the same. She was given every chance to play every position she wanted to play and if she felt like she couldn't, she was encouraged by all the coaches to try it and more often than not, she found that she could do it," says John Campbell, Bennett Elementary School football head coach.

Sara says she isn't sure how long she'll continue to play.

"As I get older, the boys get tougher and more aggressive," she says. "I might just want to be the kicker or something, so I'm working on that."

Girl with a left hook

Jada Johnson is a 4th grader at Central Cass Elementary School in Casselton. When Johnson started taking boxing classes at Golden Gloves Boxing Gym in Fargo she was the only girl. Since then a few others have joined and owner Jesse Barbot is hopeful that with women's boxing being an Olympic sport for 2012, it will encourage even more girls to take up the sport.

The 10-year-old has been taking boxing classes there for a year.

"It's really fun," Johnson says. "We punch some punching bags, we spar, and we do some core exercises like planks."

And she fights - though, she's recovering from an arm injury, unrelated to boxing.

Her fights are pretty intense and can sometimes end with one of the fighters bleeding; but all underage fighters wear head gear and mouth guards, says Shay Schmuck Johnson, Jada's mom.

"They take a lot of precautions to make sure the kids are safe," the mother says.

Johnson's 14-year-old brother is also taking boxing classes at the gym. He started after his little sister gave him a left-hook in response to something he shouldn't have said to her.

"He's like, 'Oh, no, my sister can beat me up,' " she says.

With two boxers in the family, Schmuck Johnson says they have to set some ground rules at home.

"Training is fine, but to box each other out of anger is not allowed in our house," Schmuck Johnson says.

Johnson says being the one of few girl boxers in class is kind of fun, but she wishes more girls would take up the sport.

"The older guys give me a lot of cheering on," she says.

The trainer, Barbot, a retired boxer and mixed martial arts competitor, lives near the Johnsons.

After Barbot opened Red River Golden Gloves, Schmuck Johnson asked her daughter if she wanted to take classes.

"I think all girls need to learn some form of self-defense," Schmuck Johnson says. "She needs to know how to protect herself, especially because she's small for her age."

Schmuck Johnson isn't worried about the dangers of boxing.

"She could ride around outside on her bike and get hurt," she says.

Learning to box has also given Johnson more courage to stand up for herself in other aspects of her life.

"I'm proud of her," Schmuck Johnson says. "It takes a lot of willpower. It takes a lot of stamina. It takes a lot of courage."

Gaga for dancing

While male dancers are nothing new, it's still uncommon to see a young man on a small-town high-school dance team.

Taylor Sandhofner, 16, of rural Chaffee, N.D., is a junior at Central Cass High School. He is a member of the Central Cass Dance Team and does exhibition dances on his own.

Sandhofner has taken classes at Gasper's School of Dance and Performing Arts in Fargo and he is self-taught, modeling his exhibition dances from the styles of pop star Lady Gaga.

Sandhofner started getting into dance when he was 10 years old and he joined the Central Cass dance team last year.

"When I dance, I can feel the music, I can feel it inside me and it just goes through me and I get this overwhelming emotional feeling," he says. "I get very happy."

It's obvious in watching Sandhofner that he dances with his heart.

"I put it all out there," he says. "It's what I dream. My dream is to dance."

Angela Rodacker, Sandhofner's mom says she's "very proud and impressed" whenever she sees her son dance.

"He just gets continued support," she says. "Whenever he goes anywhere, they're just fascinated with his dancing."

Sandhofner says his dream is to dance for Lady Gaga someday, but if he can't be a backup dancer for any artist, he plans to go into dance therapy.

Jamestown College has offered Sandhofner a scholarship if he joins their dance team.

"I was very stunned, there were like 100 dancers there and I was chosen out of all of them," he says. "I'm doing something nobody's really ever done before and I like doing that kind of stuff. I like to be different. I like to stand out."