UAHS students and cheerleaders from Step One Allstars prepare for another Worlds competition.
By Hallie Underwood, ’20.
Junior Theryn Dick stands in the “hole,” a waiting area for the team performing next. Her heart is racing and her ponytail, secured with a metallic scrunchie, is tied neatly at the top of her head. She runs through the routine in her head. With “Step One” in glitter across her chest, she takes a few, final deep breaths before her team’s entrance.
“[The hole is] the scariest part,” Dick said. “Before you perform with all the lights onstage, you can hear everything that’s going on out there”.
Senior Meredith McKee said in the hours leading up to the performance, the team meets to rehearse on different floors for tumbling, stunts and to “walk through” the dance and jump sequences, marking moves and getting a feel for where each cheerleader will stand.
“Sometimes we have to wait a while before going on so we’ll run in place or do some jumping jacks to stay warm,” McKee said.
Once onstage, there are about thirty seconds for competitors to reach their spots before the music starts.
In a word, junior Brooke DeWalt said cheer competitions last between five to six hours and typically span one weekend each. Despite the longevity, DeWalt loves to compete.
“We compete on a big stage with bright lights in front of so many people,” DeWalt said. I love it because the feeling once you hit [or land a stunt or tumbling sequence], and do amazing with your team is indescribable. Then, we have awards and hope for first place.”
While cheer competitions are regular occurrences throughout most of the year, competitive cheerleaders at Step One Allstars are preparing for one of their biggest challenges. Hosted by the United States All Star Federation, UAHS students from Step One are training for The Cheerleading and Dance World Championship, or Worlds, on April 27 to 29.
Competitors from UAHS said training for this competition takes a lot of time and careful practice. Dick, McKee, and DeWalt spend so much time at the Columbus Step One gym, they are starting to call it a second home.
THE SIDELINES TO THE STAGE
Before competing, Dick had been cheering for school since sixth grade. While she is still a UAHS cheerleader during the football season, Dick is also on the Extra Small Senior Coed Level 5 team at Step One Allstars, a gym in Columbus. Through tumbling classes, Dick caught a glimpse of competitive cheer and joined in eighth grade.
Unlike Dick, McKee has been cheering competitively since she was five years old. She watched her sister practice and compete and eagerly asked her mom to sign her up to be on a team as soon as she was old enough. McKee began to cheer for school in seventh grade, and said at first the two conflicted more than she thought they would.
“Since we don’t usually start competing until late fall, I was able to balance the demands from both,” McKee said. “I was typically going from one practice to the next. Sometimes I wouldn’t make it to school cheer and other times I wouldn’t make it to competitive cheer.”
Trying to make it to a second cheer practice in one day can be difficult, according to DeWalt. She feels the fifteen-minute drive from UAHS to Step One is a transition not just between gyms, but also between two very different types of cheerleading.
“I describe [competitive cheer] as a mix between dance and gymnastics. You have to be extremely strong to lift people up and throw all your tumbling,” DeWalt said. “However, school cheer has a main focus of tight and clean motions”
Dick agrees, adding that people outside of the cheer world may not see cheer as a sport because they only see school cheerleaders.
“School cheer has minimum tumbling. Just motions, that’s basically all it is,” Dick said. “Competitive cheer has different categories in one routine.”
THE RIGHT COMBINATION
A jump sequence. Stunting. Standing tumbling. Running tumbling. A coach’s perfect combination packed into two minutes and thirty seconds. Dick explains that with the time limits, team, and individual pressures, it takes a lot mentally and physically to be able to compete.
“Twenty percent of competitive cheer is physical and eighty percent of it is mental,” Dick said.
Sometimes, McKee is able to show the skills she needs to complete a routine when opposers do not view competitive cheer as a sport.
“I try to explain to people what it’s like to do a full competitive cheer routine by asking them to imagine sprinting on a treadmill for 45 seconds then holding two 50 pound weights above their head for a minute, doing 50 squats or lunges and then sprinting again,” McKee said. “That is what it’s like, except that circuit repeats three or four times throughout the routine.”
Frustrated with notions that “cheer isn’t a sport”, DeWalt wishes those not familiar with competitive cheer knew how difficult she has experienced it to be.
“Practices are two and a half hours each time,” DeWalt said. “It seems even longer when you are so tired and working so hard to making sure you don’t disappoint your coaches.”
PERFECTING THE CRAFT
McKee admits often she doesn’t know what practice will be like until it starts, either beginning with conditioning exercises or jumping into competition preparation.
With the Worlds competition, however, Step One cheerleaders have come to expect a sort of routine. The team does a competition warm-up, marking dance moves and stunts. Then, each cheerleader practices tumbling on the spring floor and stunting each for about six minutes. The team then spends the rest of the practice fully performing the routine, and perfecting aspects of the routine that may need work.
Dick is a main base, which supports the majority of the flyer’s feet during stunts. Through extensive conditioning and practice, Dick is able to hurl flyers into the air time and time again.
“You have to be strong,” Dick said. “You have to know every single count because if you miss the foot by a second, the flyer falls and you don’t get any points for it in competition.
Although stunts are an example of the importance of teamwork in a successful cheer routine, Dick emphasizes that cheer is also an individual sport.
“Say I fall. I’ve just deducted points that we could have had as a team, and you can’t blame anyone but yourself. I feel like it’s such an individual thing. It’s all on you to cheer for your team,” Dick said.
With competition season here, Dick and her team are practicing at the gym five days a week. The All Stars on her team have been practicing this frequently since winter. Dick is able to connect with many friends through competitive cheer, including DeWalt and McKee. Step One’s Extra Small Senior Coed Level 5 team is made up of 17 cheerleaders from around Columbus.
“We’re all friends,” Dick said. “And we’re really close to the coaches. They kind of favor our team because we’re the oldest people, and we have all the seniors.”
DeWalt, who has been cheering competitively since she was four years old, said she has had an amazing experience cheering at Step One. “I joined because my previous gym didn’t feel like home and I didn’t seem to fit in,” DeWalt said. “Step one is one big family and we all support each other and the other teams which is an awesome feeling.”
In the decade that McKee has been at Step One, she has formed close friendships with new and old teammates. “The people that I have been on a team with have come and gone,” McKee said. “I have made very strong friendships with people that I’m still in contact with today, even though they haven’t cheered in two or three years. My coaches are like a second family to me. They’re extremely supportive and have helped me through so much.”
Dick said she feels her team at Step One has felt like a second family, and her coaches and fellow athletes have always made her feel welcome and loved.
“When you’re there, there’s no pressure. I can just be me,” Dick said.
TIME TO SHINE
Dick, Dewalt, and McKee will compete with Step One Allstars at the annual Worlds competition. Worlds is held in Orlando, Florida at ESPN World of Sports. For Step One cheerleaders, wearing Step One uniforms at large competitions like this is an honor. It is important for Dick that she is representing her team’s reputation well.
“Step One is known for winning Worlds and for winning Summit, which are two of the biggest cheer competitions, several times. Some of the coaches have also won Worlds, so they know what they’re doing,” Dick said.
DeWalt said that it has been a dream to participate in Worlds since starting cheer, and is looking forward to the one-of-a-kind experience.
“Worlds will be a rush of many different emotions,” DeWalt said. “There are so many good teams there, so I’m sure we will get nervous. We completed here in March, so I think it’ll help that we’ve already seen and competed in the arena.”
Senior Meredith McKee is excited for one last chance to compete at Worlds before graduating UAHS and is thankful for an opportunity to celebrate thirteen years cheering competitively.
“I wouldn’t be who I am today if I didn’t do competitive cheerleading,” McKee said.