Imagine your body 35 feet above the floor. You spin twice and then land in the arms of three awaiting teammates. Then it's on to the next sequence. Two minutes and 20 seconds of tumbling and moving in and out of formations. You keep smiling at the crowd, wanting oh-so-very-very-badly to bring home another national cheerleading title for your school.
At the Universal Cheerleaders Association's competition in Orlando, Florida, in January, cheerleaders from Morehead State University and the University of Kentucky did just that-capturing national first-place championships for their schools. For Morehead, it was the 11th national championship and an unprecedented 10th straight victory, continuing the co-ed squad's reign as the best Division 1 team in the country.
"No other college sport has won 10 championships in a row," says Morehead cheerleader Nick
For UK's co-ed squad, it's the 10th national Division 1-A cheerleading championship, a dominance that began in 1985. Morehead's all-girl team placed second in the UCA competition.
How has Kentucky become such a cheerleading powerhouse?
It starts, many say, with simple, traditional values: family, community, sportsmanship, pride, and the drive to succeed. Add to that each individual cheerleader's desire to be the best, and cheerleading programs that never lose sight of their connection to school and academics.
"Our true role is to cheer for the athletic teams," says UK cheerleading coach Saleem Habash. Other coaches and cheerleaders will tell you the same thing: cheerleading is about supporting the teams, promoting sportsmanship, and entertaining sports fans.
"It doesn't matter how many back flips and tumbling stunts you do-if you don't have one-on-one rapport with the crowd," says Candy Berry, Greenup County High School's cheerleading coach. Whether at a home game or a national cheerleading competition, "crowd involvement" is the reason for the intricate moves: tumbling, partner stunts, pyramid/mount sequences, and basket tosses.
Morehead's cheerleading coach, Myron Doan, likens a cheerleading team to a family and is adamant about maintaining a family atmosphere for his team. In 1999, with the 2000 championship far on the horizon, most members of Morehead's team were newcomers among the experienced upperclassmen. But, Doan says, just like in a family with competition among siblings, ego and pride work magic as the cheerleaders help one another learn the stunts and transitions.
For some, the dream of being a college cheerleader goes back to childhood-cheering for grade school and high school teams, and watching college cheerleaders on TV. "I thought it would be so fun to fly through the air," says Cassie Piersol, a Morehead cheerleader.
Others come from competitive sports, like track, swimming, or gymnastics, without ever having been a high school cheerleader.
In either case, cheerleaders are "very specialized athletes," says Doan. "People don't understand the skill and athleticism required by cheerleading."
The gymnastics ability, power, and strength make cheerleaders some of the most well-rounded athletes on campus, says UK's Habash. There aren't many males on campus who can lift a 120-pound female gracefully in the air and then set her to the floor for another round of gymnastic moves and formations.
Cheerleading has evolved from an all-male activity in the early 1900s, to a nearly all-female activity in the middle part of the century, to today when it has become an activity for both men and women. Many universities have both co-ed and all-girl cheerleading squads. Of the estimated 3.5 million people nationwide involved in cheerleading, less than 5 percent are male, but the increasing interest in men wanting to be cheerleaders has enabled a higher degree of difficulty to become part of cheerleading routines.
Some schools don't allow their cheerleaders to participate in competitions, believing the cheerleader's only role is to cheer for a school's athletic teams.
"I'm firmly convinced that you can do both," says Doan, who as dean of students, as well as coach and choreographer, at Morehead for 18 years has been a key part of building the school's program. Other cheerleading experts say competitions make game cheering and routines much more polished.
Unlike football and basketball players, cheerleaders take on a schedule that straddles the seasons of both sports in addition to being year-round ambassadors for their respective universities.
Whether college cheerleaders receive an education in return for cheering for their school varies greatly. At UK, all of the cheerleaders receive in-state tuition. At the University of Louisville, scholarships aren't guaranteed. U of L's co-ed squad receives partial scholarships. It depends on each university-whether the cheerleaders are affiliated with an athletic department and what kind of fund raising is available, says U of L Spirit Group Coordinator Janie
In many cases, a student will opt to become a cheerleader because of the reputation of the program and the chance to compete on a team with a tradition of excellence. Nick Carlino is one such example. From Idaho, he chose to attend Morehead-to be a cheerleader there. The best three squads in the world are in Kentucky, he says matter-of-factly: Morehead, UK, and U of L.
Recruiting for cheerleaders is extremely competitive. Habash gets 300 to 500 phone calls a year from prospects hoping to try out. He watches video tapes of prospects, as does Myron Doan. "The more you win, the more people come to us," Doan says.
Those new cheerleaders often come from being high school stars to college where, suddenly, they're no longer the best cheerleader in the group.
"It's a big adjustment," says Holly Young of London, Kentucky, a member of UK's varsity squad. "It comes down to teamwork." Willingness to learn and take criticism becomes part of building an award-winning team.
Beneath the pyramid sequences and basket tosses lies the old-fashioned value of trust.
"There's a lot of trust needed," says UK cheerleader Tye Chastain, "trust that must be earned." Whether you're flying through the air or catching a companion cheerleader, trust builds up over time and practice.
"Cheerleading is communication," says T. Lynn Williamson, UK's director of Human Resource Services, who has guided UK's team as a volunteer advisor for 23 years. Every move that fans see on the gym floor has been practiced over and over to perfection. Still, the slip of a hand or foot is possible at every step.
"We like to make things look easy," you hear cheerleaders say. Part of their challenge is making a performance look spontaneous and effortless. The other ingredients are trust, communication, family, community, sportsmanship, and pride. Add to that creative choreography and a cheerleader's own personality and drive to be the best, and you have a Kentucky cheerleading tradition.
Louisville's Cheerleading Tradition
The University of Louisville's co-ed squad is looking for its third national title in a row this April as it competes in the National Cheerleaders Association Collegiate Championships in Daytona, Florida. While Morehead and the University of Kentucky compete in the Universal Cheerleaders Association, U of L is affiliated with the NCA. Since 1985, the University of Louisville team has won eight national titles. The prospect of a ninth win looks promising, considering that the co-ed team has been ranked No. 1 for the 2000 competition based on the team's video entry judged as a preliminary to the NCACC. U of L's all-girl cheerleading squad and dance team have also been ranked No. 1 in the video round of
Cheering in High School
Ask Kentucky college cheerleading experts why Kentucky has produced so many winning teams on a national level, and high school cheerleading immediately comes into the conversation.
"All over the state, we have good cheerleading programs," says Betty Novak, a guidance counselor at Wolfe County High School and former president of the Kentucky Association of Pep Organization Sponsors (KAPOS). "A lot of it has to do with enthusiasm and dedication to sports in Kentucky."
KAPOS is one of the largest and oldest organizations of its kind in the country, dating back almost 50 years. Through newsletters, scholarships, and competitions, it works to promote and improve cheerleading. It's no wonder that high school girls, and now boys, come to college programs and competitions with refined skills.
"Cheerleading has evolved into a more dynamic activity," observes Brigid DeVries, executive assistant commissioner of the Kentucky High School Athletic Association. "When you're competing, you're going to refine your skills."
Kentucky's Athletic Association sets the guidelines for cheerleaders. The length of the cheerleading season, number of allowed competitions, and academic regulations are all spelled out in addition to requiring high schools to follow the Spirit handbook of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
Building a cheerleading program that nurtures cheerleaders in and out of the classroom is the key to victory. "It's the strength of your program," says Candy Berry.
As coach of the Greenup County High School cheerleaders and a former Russell High School cheerleader, Berry has led Greenup to nine national cheerleading titles, the most received by any Kentucky high school.
In the 1980s, as Kentucky cheerleaders were beginning to prepare for national cheerleading championships, it was Berry who set the standards for everyone else, says longtime UK volunteer cheerleading advisor T. Lynn Williamson. Having assisted UK's cheerleaders for five or six years in their early years of competitions-and having gotten offers to guest-coach college programs across the country-Berry has remained at Greenup High School. In 1999, Greenup's all-girl small squad won first place in the National High School Cheerleading