Central Michigan brought two cheer teams to the Division IA University Cheerleaders Association College Nationals for the first time in program history Jan. 17 through the 19.
With more than 50 members, the cheer team is most known for its efforts in summoning school spirit on the sidelines of athletic events. Unknown to many fans, the squad also spends the season training for one of the largest cheer competitions in the country, held at Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
“First and foremost, we are game cheerleaders,” said senior captain Laura Huth. “If we have the opportunity and skill level to do competitions, we work for that. In a sense, you are working for competition, but trying to be the best game cheerleader for the school as well.”
The Chippewas placed seventh out of 21 teams in the small co-ed division, but did not reach the finals in the all-girl division. The co-ed team consists of four men and 12 women, made up of four co-ed pairs and eight individual women.
Meanwhile, the all-girl team has 20 female members. Both teams compete in front of a panel of judges to earn the best score out of a possible 100 points.
Huth said the team fought through adversity on their journey to nationals, dealing with injuries and a young team. Personally, she fractured the fifth metacarpal in her left hand while performing a stunt.
“I went to a specialist to compete with a broken hand and I still need to go back to see if I’ll need surgery,” Huth said. “I know how hard it is to be on a nationals journey and a first-time competitor, so I tried to suck it up as much as I could. It was mostly emotionally hard because I had to mask my pain so that I could be stronger for everyone else, but I wouldn’t have done it any other way.”
The return from injury can be a long one, especially because of the seed of fear can return and cause psychological difficulties.
Assistant coach and former CMU cheerleader Nicky Van said fatigue can set in during the year as travel, school work and long days of practice can take a toll, causing some players to leave the team.
“If you dislocate a shoulder for example, you can heal it and recover, but it’s also a mental barrier where you ask yourself if you can still do things,” he said. “You’re not going to be the same person, so we lost some people that way.”
Van said his team works to get its competitive routines at an elite level throughout the season.
In addition to cheering at home games and competitions, the cheerleaders have performed at Ford Field for the Mid-American Conference Championship football game, and bowl games in 2006 through 2009 and 2012.
Historically, the large co-ed program finished 10th in 2005 and 14th in 2006. The all-girl team placed seventh nationally in 2008 and 10th in 2009. The small co-ed team placed sixth nationally in 2012 and recently ranked eighth in the nation in the 2013 UCA Collegiate National Championships.
What can be observed at an average sporting event, Van said, does not scratch the surface for what cheerleaders are capable of.
“Cheering is not easy,” Van said. “We practice just as hard as a lot of the other sports teams. I consider it a sport, perhaps not just yelling, but the athleticism involved in throwing the girls and their acrobatics and putting their bodies on the line qualifies it.”
This is especially true for the male cheerleaders, who are often marginalized despite the level of strength needed to launch their teammates into the air and safely return them to the ground.
Senior and 3-year captain DaRron Johnson said he enjoys the challenge that cheerleading presents.
“It’s a very mental, as well as physical sport,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of drain on the body and it takes a toll.”
Van said it’s difficult to recruit men for the sport, as the misconceptions skew many males’ idea of the sport.
“With guys, it’s very hard with all the stereotypes involved,” Van said. “You don’t tend to think of it as a men’s sport in college. It’s hard to find them with some of them we have to decide who to recruit and find who we can mold into being a cheerleader.”
All the hard work pays off in the end when the athletes exit “the castle,” a large prop that leads into the stage at Disney World.
The only illumination in the room comes from a spotlight on the mat, where the Chippewas compete in front of the massive crowd and their teammates.
“When you run through the castle, it feels like crossing the finish line – all your hard work has paid off,” Johnson said. “It’s something we look forward to the whole year.”
Huth had a difficult time putting this experience into words.
“It’s many girls’ dream, its hard to describe,” Huth said. “If you’re like me, you go on auto-pilot and don’t remember much. It can be pretty intimidating with the spotlights on you, but if you ask anyone, it’s probably the best experience of their lives. I’ve been blessed to do it three times and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”