Van prepared to lead cheer team to national competition


Head Cheer Coach Nicky Van stands outside of Kelly/Shorts Stadium with the CMU cheer team.

Nicky Van is prepared to lead his team into the National Cheerleading Competition on Saturday, but the pain of what kept him from nationals a year ago still lingers.    

Van said he remembers his exact emotions from that chilly January 2015 night. He sat at his kitchen table eating dinner when the phone rang.

Van’s sister Tracy was on the other line. What she told him sent shivers through his body.

Their father Dan had just experienced an aneurysm, which caused hemorrhaging in his brain. Doctors gave him a 10 percent chance to live.

When Tracy called a second time, Van began to panic. This time she told him their father was not going to make it.

“I started freaking out,” Van said. “I didn’t know about (my father's illness). No one knew about it. It was completely unexpected.”

Opening the door to his white Toyota, Van started a tense drive to the Borgess Health Hospital in Kalamazoo. A storm of thoughts brewed in his mind. He asked himself, “How could this happen? Why is this happening? Is this real?”

When Van arrived, there was already a room full of people in the waiting room.

“My dad was basically the head honcho of the family,” Van said. “He did a lot of things for a lot of people and a lot of people knew and respected him.”

Dan, 64, was breathing through a tube when Van came to his bedside. He couldn’t talk or open his eyes anymore. His heart could no longer pump on its own.

Ten minutes after his son arrived, Dan was taken to another room to have peace during his final moments. He took his last breath on Jan. 4, 2015.

Due to the tragedy, an assistant coach was left in charge of the team during its trip to nationals in 2015 while Van attended his father’s funeral in Hue, Vietnam. At the time, nationals were the last thing on his mind.

True to their Vietnamese heritage, family is highly valued among the Vans. The Central Michigan cheerleading team embodies that family atmosphere, which Van said became stronger after his loss a year ago. 

“He didn’t want to leave us,” said Maddy Miller, a junior on the cheer team. “He needed to be with his family and we all understood and wanted him to be with his family as well.”

Van will leave with his team Wednesday for the 2016 College National Cheerleading Championship in Orlando, Florida. It will be the first time the former CMU cheerleader will lead his team into a national competition. The Chippewas compete in the Small Coed Division I Semi-Finals at 8:27 a.m. on Jan. 16, which can be live streamed on

“It may take a lot of time and a lot of work, but Nicky makes sure to tell us we’re doing great,” Miller said. “We trust him and we trust the journey he is leading us on.”

Andrew Surma contributed to this article


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