They may be on the sidelines most of the time while the game is being played, however, it’s important to recognize that those who cheer for athletes are also athletes.
No longer are the young women and men who cheer simply acting as window dressing for sporting events. Not even close. While they do provide enthusiastic support for their school’s teams, today’s cheerleaders are fierce competitors in their own right, training at their craft for hours on end, sacrificing their bodies at times, and going cheer-to-cheer with other squads in heated competition.
The Danbury High School cheer program has produced tough competitors, said Anny Hamilton, a senior cheerleader. “Over the past few years, our varsity team has been very successful, as 2019 state champions and four-time Fairfield County Interscholastic Athletic Conference champions, along with placing first at many of our virtual competitions this past year. We manage to not only maintain strong academic excellence in the classroom, but do many other athletic activities year-round to stay in shape.”
According to another senior member of the Danbury team, Sydney Corcoran, tryouts begin in early June, and the team practices three times a week to get ready for its seasons, with tumbling classes, conditioning, and cheer camp thrown in.
“During the fall and winter season, our team practices every weekday after school to get ready and build a routine that we perform to showcase our best skills,” said Corcoran. “Along with that, we cheer for our football team once a week during the fall season and our basketball team twice a week in the winter. Starting in early January, our team performs in about eight competitions, including FCIAC’s, states, and the Team of the Year event.”
Cheerleading requires “a lot mentally and physically,” Hamilton explained. “Girls work almost year round, and that shows how much drive and commitment one needs to have.”
Added Corcoran, “With spending so much time with one another, the biggest thing the team gets out of cheer is a sense of family; bonds that will last a lifetime. Spending some of our highest and lowest moments together creates friendships like none other. It means a lot to know that beyond the four years of high school, we can always lean on each other for a helping hand.”
It’s taken quite a long time, but finally, cheerleaders are starting to receive the respect they deserve. So says Hannah Kerr, cheerleading coach at Farmington High School. “Now that cheerleading has been granted Olympic status, I can only imagine that respect will grow. In years past, we all know that cheerleading in the media was portrayed poorly. We have seen a shift and a new twist on those cheerleader roles. In newer cheerleading movies, you can see the media trying more and more to portray cheerleading as hard work.”
Kerr said the athletic department at Farmington High School “does everything it can” to make sure the cheerleaders are treated as athletes. “They accommodate and help the team with whatever they need.”
The muscles cheerleaders use, said Kerr, and the work they put in is different from other sports. “We combine four different elements to make one two-and-a-half-minute routine. What most people see is the routine. They do not see the hours of training that is put into those routines.”
Stunting in cheerleading is when the athletes hold and throw other athletes in the air. In order to safely stunt, athletes have to learn the proper technique and train. It takes strength training and coordination to catch and hold a foot above your head with your arms locked out.
Said Kerr, “Just like stunting, you can’t just simply decide to start tumbling and throwing back tucks. It takes drills and time to get to that point. Cheerleading is not just scored on the skill you do but also the technique of how well you do that skill. To be on that mat, you have to think about more than just the motions of what’s happening but also about the little things. Are your toes pointed? Are your arms locked out in a stunt or in your walkover skills? Is the team hitting their motions all on the right count? Is the team hitting the motions correctly, arms locked when they should be, creating the right lines with the person next to you? Are your jumps getting as much height as they can?”
Many cheerleaders spend their own time as well as practice time working on their routines and skills. Said Kerr, “They hit the gym to work on building strength. They run in order to build endurance. They also spend their own time working on their motions for the routine so they feel confident in them. Cheerleading is not a sport where you can just walk in and be perfect. It takes time, dedication and teamwork.”
Julia Vyskocil coaches the Greenwich High School varsity cheer team. The athletes on her team are “extremely dedicated, motivated, and talented”. She added, “They work hard.”
Greenwich High School has had success in cheer competitions, placing first at a number of local competitions. Many athletes begin cheering in elementary school and come to the high school with some experience of cheering under their belt, said Vyskocil. “We build an exceptional sense of community and support throughout our freshman, junior varsity and varsity teams. While my athletes are extremely passionate about their sport, they are also even more passionate about spreading `Cardinal Pride’ and our tradition throughout Greenwich.”
Cheerleading is more than just a sport for the members of the Greenwich High School team. “It is a true passion that they have come to love,” said Vyskocil. The sport has taught them so much about dedication, perseverance, commitment, and trust. It has shaped the people that they will be for the rest of their lives. The bonds and connections that my team has made with each other are something that they will cherish forever. Cheerleading is not just a fun hobby, it’s a lifestyle that has helped so many not only become stronger athletes, but more importantly, better people.”
Newtown High School can lay claim to being the 2020 LL State Champion, a school first. “Many would say cheer season never ends,” said head coach Susan Bridges. “This year, we kicked off our season in early August. We practice four days a week, plus a tumbling day. We cheer at all home and away football games. In the late fall, we begin competition choreography and prepare for the winter season, which consists of cheering for boys and girls basketball, and cheer competitions.”
Bridges said just based on time commitment alone, cheerleading is a demanding sport. “Cheer is multi-faceted. Many do not even realize how much goes into a successful program. It’s not just rah-rah on the sideline. Along with practice, games and competitions, we are very active in our community. We work with our youth program, help with our town parade, set up the library book sale, unified cheer, `Adopt-a Family’ thank you notes to first responders, valentines for vets. The list could go on. Whenever we are asked to help out, we never say no.”
Joann Tatarzycki’s Danbury High School team practices five days a week, with one of those days being a tumbling class. “We usually practice for two hours a day and will include conditioning and weight room work. We cheer for the football team once a week in the fall, and then usually two to three times a week in the winter for boys and girls basketball games. We could compete in as many as eight cheer events during the school year.”
Tartazycki said cheerleading is “very demanding.” First of all, the competition scoresheet encompasses many different areas of skill: team members need to know how to do cheer, motions, jumps, stunt, tumble and dance. Secondly, high school cheerleaders have to meet eligibility requirements for grades and number of courses taken. Many of my cheerleaders take AP courses and have demanding schedules. “We also participate in many fundraisers and community service events. Practices and games take up an enormous amount of time, in addition to homework and other functions. The physicality of the sport can also take a toll on the body, and injuries do happen. Many of these athletes sacrifice a lot to participate in cheer.”
Pop Warner Little Scholars is a national cheer organization for children ages 5 to 15. There are no try outs, as youngsters sign up and they cheer. And it is run by volunteers. This year, the Northern Connecticut Pop Warner chapter has approximately 500 cheerleaders.
The Pop Warner season officially begins on August 1. During the month of August, teams can practice up to 10 hours per week. After Labor Day, when football game begin, it decreases to six hours. Squads are expected to cheer for football games on the weekend.
Barbara Dell’Angelo, cheer commissioner, said the Pop Warner Connecticut State Championships will be held on October 9 in New Haven. “This is the teams’ fun competition. Bragging rights are at stake. The teams are always so excited to start their competition season. Our teams have the opportunity to advance to the Pop Warner National Championships held every year in December in Florida. In the past it was held in Disney World but recently switched to Universal Studios.”
The road to Nationals begins at the local championships held on October 24 in New Haven. A team must place first or second in its division to qualify for the New England Championships, which are held in Lowell, Massachusetts on November 6 and 7. If a team places first or second or qualifies by score in its division, it moves on to the National Championships.
According to DellAngelo, the image of a pretty young girl wearing a sparkly uniform with a bow in her hair is quite misleading. “Cheer is so much more than that. It incorporates stunting, tumbling, jumps, dance, strength and spirit into one. You have little girls lifting or throwing other little girls in the air. The discipline that requires is amazing. Keeping them safe is always our first priority.” The youngest cheer teams in Pop Warner are the “Tiny Mites,” ages 5, 6 and 7 and range in age to the varsity teams of 12 through 15.
“Having been involved with Pop Warner for 28 years, I have met and coached quite a number of cheerleaders,” offered Dell’Angelo. “Each child takes away something different. Some are lifelong cheerleaders, some do it for only one season. Some are naturally outgoing and just love to be the face of the sport, some we have to work on. They all seem to develop confidence and pride, confidence in themselves, and pride in their town or school. I have watched them form friendships that are everlasting.”
Some Pop Warner cheerleaders move on to cheer for their high school teams, others turn to playing sports, but “cheer has given them all the discipline needed to succeed.” She added, “ Northern Connecticut Pop Warner cheerleaders have gone on to cheer at many colleges. Lexi Bartolli of Wolcott was recently named the Connecticut Cheerleader of 2020 and is attending UConn this fall. Lexi started in Pop Warner at the age of 5 .”
Jennifer Calabrese of the Gymnastics and Cheerleading Academy of Connecticut said that “cheer camp” offers myriad programs for aspiring and established young cheerleaders. “We offer recreational classes and competitive teams, and have half-year and full-year competitive teams,” explained Calabrese. Classes are split into ages 3-5, 5-7, 8-11, 12-15 and high school age.
“Cheerleading is an incredible sport in and of itself,” opened Calabrese. Cheer is full of self-discovery, excitement, and passion, and it offers numerous benefits to kids of all ages. Youth who get involved in cheerleading are poised to grow up with many advantages, including community building, energy levels, emotional, resiliency, communication skills, and other skills they can take with them for a lifetime.”
For most, the goal of those attending GCA is to make their high school teams, said Calabrese. “Competitive cheerleading is a physically demanding sport. Teams incorporate elements of dance, tumbling, and flexibility to create routines that will be performed. The elements in cheer require strength, stamina, timing, and flexibility.”
“All-Star” cheer can be expensive, what with competition fees, traveling fees, uniforms, and cheer gear in general, but with “lots of fundraising,” it is manageable, said Calabrese. “Our teams travel to compete. We can go as far as Florida. These are All-Star competitions. We have had an extremely successful program over the past 10 years since we opened.” Recreational cheerleading tends to be much less expensive a commitment.
Like other high school athletes, many cheerleaders aspire to continue their sport at the college level. Said Samantha Breault, Coordinator and Head Cheerleading Coach for the University of Connecticut cheer team, “Our athletes not only have practice for 8 to 10 hours a week, they also have game days and appearances as well. At UConn, cheerleaders not only represent the cheerleading team, they are also ambassadors for the University.”
UConn holds tryouts for its cheer team every year at the conclusion of the spring semester. Each candidate, whether a new member or returner, must try out each season. The cheerleading team at UConn is typically a large coed team. “Usually, we have between 24 to 29 females and five to seven males,” said Breault. “The team sizes range anywhere from 28 to 32 members in a given year.”
The UConn cheer squad has three practices a week and one full-program open gym a week. Members of the team also participate in all home football games, select away football games, all home men’s and women’s basketball games, select in-season tournament basketball games, and “March Madness” tournament games. They also have weekly appearances through University Departments or outside for requesting organizations. The team competes at the Universal Cheerleaders Association College Nationals in Orlando, Florida.
Over the past few seasons, UConn has given out four $500 scholarships “due to the generosity of some of our now alumni families,” said Breault.
Whether they are 5 years old or young women and men in their early 20s, Connecticut cheerleaders are laying it all on the line for the teams they root for, their teammates, and themselves, just like any other athletes.