Updated: Feb 14, 2020
This year from April 8-12, The University of Texas at Tyler cheer team will attend the National Cheerleading Competition held yearly in Daytona, Florida. Staff Writer Lucas Vega talked with the cheer team to discuss why a chance to compete in this event is what all collegiate cheer programs strive for--basically the cheer equivalent of March Madness, except the one month of competition is compressed into two days. Hundreds of teams compete in this competition, and only two minutes are alloted for each routine.
To call it a high pressure environment would be a huge understatement, and nobody understands this fact better than the coach behind it all: Maggie Koehn.
“No matter how many times you go through it, there’s always the chance that a mistake will happen,” Koehn said. “This is very stressful considering that my team practices the same routine for months and months, but they’re only granted two chances to get it right. We will perform our two minute routine on the first day, and again on the second. They tally up our scores from the two attempts, and that’ll decide our placing.”
Koehn knows the stress of Daytona all too well. She was there for the team’s first national appearance last year, where they placed 7th overall; higher than any other first-time competitors. More importantly, however, she was there for the road to Daytona. The process begins eleven months before the competition even takes place.
“We hold tryouts in May and only accept twenty competitors. Athletes have to show they can perform necessary techniques, such as the ‘rolling tumble.’ Once tryouts are over we take the month of June off, then we immediately jump into team training camp,” Koehn said. “This training in particular is really done in preparation for the NCA camp in Dallas, where the athletes will be taught various techniques by veterans of the cheer community. It’s a long process, but we need to make sure our team is skilled enough to perform the competition routines.”
Skill is stressed out of concern for the athletes’ safety.
Concussions, muscle spraigns, and fractures are not uncommon to the sport. The competition routines involve many dangerous maneuvers and stunts. If one does not have the necessary skills, they are a danger to themselves and others.
“After enough practice, we bring in a choreographer to craft us a competition routine,” Koehn said. “I’ll make some slight adjustments to accommodate my team, but once that is complete, we work for months to perfect those two minutes. The routine won’t stay stagnant. People will get injured, athletes will quit the program, and we’ll have to make some changes. However, right now we’re just in the middle of it all. We’re practicing as much as we can. We’re on the road to April.”
The process is long and arduous. Practice occurs five times a week between the classes of the athletes.
Conditioning and weight training is peppered throughout these days as well. However what makes the cheerleader unique in the spectrum of collegiate athletes, is the fact that many of their responsibilities take place of the practice mat.
“As cheerleaders, our week is filled with more stuff than just competition practice,” cheerleader Ashley Elliott said. “We’re at all the games, all the events, and pretty much any off campus event where the school wants UT Tyler to be represented. Like some of my friends are teaching senior citizens a cheer routine for a community service event. Recently we did an event called Girl Power, and a career day at an elementary school. Our schedules are all very busy; it’s very tiring.”
As the months progress, the physical demands of the sport begin to take a toll on the athletes. It is essential that they stay healthy, but this too requires commitment.
“I’ve been very active since the age of six, and cheer has definitely taken its toll on my body,” cheerleader Jamielynn Parker said. “I have what’s called “stretched muscles” from overwork.
Basically it means I have to go to the trainer very frequently to do extra work to make sure it stays strong. If I neglect this extra work, I could end up with a serious injury. It’s a lot of hard work and the schedule is definitely tough, but I made a commitment to this team and I am willing to see it through.”
11 months of training for four minutes of action is not an easy trade-off to accept. The pressure of knowing that hours and hours of work will be defined in short minutes is in the back of the mind of every cheerleader.
However difficult, Coach Koehn views the sport as nothing short of a blessing, and hopes her athletes share this point of view.
“In the bigger picture, it teaches them what workeffort and selflessness looks like,” Koehn said. “Giving back to your community. Most of the opportunities I have been given in my career have been through cheerleading. Normal students who are involved in groups don’t know this, so It’s important for my girls to do this and not just compete for their team.”