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The Twirling Illini

What if it could all turn out better than you ever imagined?

Image credited to Julia Arciola

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I have never been one to stick with the crowd. 

 

Growing up, I never wanted to be average. 

 

Everything I have done in my life has been in an effort to stand out. 

 

That’s how I’ve always been, that’s how I got to where I am, and that’s how I always will be.

        

Growing up in South Florida, there was never a shortage of entertainment. 

 

One day, when I was five years old, my parents took me to a parade in Lighthouse Point. This was a yearly event, and in each parade, there was a group of girls that were twirling batons. My mom instantly saw my fascination with the group and decided to sign me up for twirling lessons. My parents had always encouraged me to try different activities. 

 

I grew up playing tennis, soccer, and other sports, but I never enjoyed them. When it came to twirling, however, I immediately fell in love.

        

I started going to classes four to five times a week. That is a lot for most people, especially for a five-year-old, but my parents loved how much I cared about it. It was a lot of help for them as well because they both worked and I had three other siblings. Needless to say, the house was pretty hectic.

        

I kept working at it and going to lessons. By the time I was 6, I was competing in my first Florida State Championships. I had been working so hard and had gotten really good. This showed when I came home from the championships with the first place trophy. Being rewarded for the work I had done meant so much to me, and that feeling was the thing that kept me going. I have won that same championship every year since then.

        

That first win really kick-started things for me. 

 

Since then, I have continued to work and achieve more things than I could have ever imagined. I kept pushing myself and practicing harder and harder, and this translated to my skills. I was getting so good that I could not twirl on teams with my age group. 

 

By the time I was 7, I was on teams with girls that were much older than me. These girls were in high school and college, and I was competing with them at such a young age. This was a great thing for me; I was able to learn how I could stick with some of the best.

        

Once I got to high school, I decided to go to North Broward Preparatory School. 

 

It was a large and diverse place, and they allowed me the opportunity to twirl for them. I would twirl during football games, pep rallies, and in many other events. 

 

This was a completely different experience than twirling in competitions. In competitions, the judges do not necessarily care if you look happy, they are just looking at skill and technique. For students and fans at a high school, I had to make sure that I was smiling and looking like I was having fun.

 

I knew that there could be a little girl there, watching me, possibly being inspired to try out twirling herself. I took great pride in that, which is one of the reasons I knew I wanted to cheer at the collegiate level.

        

As my time in high school began winding down, I really had to start figuring out where I wanted to go for college. Starting my sophomore year, I began emailing band directors at different schools. I sent an email to every school I wanted to go to that had a program. I really just wanted them to see my name and see the work I was putting in. 

 

I wanted to show them that the effort I was putting in would be the same effort I would put in as a future twirler. 

 

When my senior year came around, I had narrowed my decision down to three choices: the University of Illinois, the University of Texas, and Baylor University.

        

The first school I was accepted into was Baylor. They accepted me very early on in the process, even before the tryouts for the other schools. They also told me I did not have to try out and I would be one of their feature twirlers. 

 

Since I really liked the school and was anxious about the decision I would have to make, I elected to take the position at Baylor.

        

I arrived on campus in the fall, and I honestly just did not feel at home. I felt very uncomfortable academically and socially. I did get some opportunities I am very thankful for, however, such as twirling on ESPN at the Big 12 championship game and the Sugar Bowl. Those are both once-in-a-lifetime things that I will cherish forever. 

 

Ultimately, I was unhappy there. 

 

After my freshman year, which was cut short by COVID, I elected to transfer.

        

In twirling, it is very rare for someone to transfer schools. I had built myself up as a pretty big name in the sport, so the news that I was transferring came as a shock to a lot of people. 

 

Though I knew it might be looked down upon, I did not let this get in my way. I applied to the University of Illinois first, and I got in right away. I also sent an email to their band director, and he said that based on my videos, I did not have to try out. 

 

This was huge for me. I immediately committed to the University of Illinois, and I have not looked back since.

        
Everyone takes a different path. I have always taken the road less traveled. That’s the road one has to take if they want to find success in the sport of twirling and maybe life. 

 

The thing about the road less traveled is that it often can not be seen by most people, even at times, by oneself. But I’ll leave with one question. What if whatever it is in life that you want could turn out better than you could imagine?… Turn out better than what you deemed possible in your mind?

 

Through my work and determination, I have been able to do things and go places that will forever be cherished memories in my heart. I am thankful for every opportunity this sport has given me. My parents have helped me in so many ways, and with their support through every decision I have made, I cannot wait for the next chapter of my life to start.

 

 

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Athlete Reflections

The Life of a Cheerleader – Grounded in Friendship

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The biggest lesson I’ve learned from my cheer career is that teammates are the most important part of cheerleading.

When I’m on the floor, what gets me through the routine is my teammates yelling, we got this; we’re almost done, keep going. When you put in the work for yourself and your teammates, the team’s success fills you with indescribable pride.

I’ve met some of my closest friends through cheer, and my teammates make even the most challenging practices enjoyable even when my body wants to give up.

My teammates are my family.

My base Abby who’s been with me for eight years is practically my sister; I can always count on my best friend since elementary school, Meghan, to do whatever it takes to make the stunt work; I love cracking jokes with my Backspot Zora and my flyer Presley, and my friend Emma I can always count on to get me through a challenging practice. Teammates make not only cheer but sports what they are.

Our teammates drive us.

When you spend the majority of your time with just these people, you create bonds that will last forever. Especially nowadays, where the headlines rarely include more than one, it is essential to remember how instrumental teammates are in our success and life. Make sure you make known how much you appreciate those around you that you go to the war and back with. Chances are, wherever you are today, a teammate or many teammates have helped support that success.

 

 

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Cheer

Still Stunting

Why give up what you want most for what you want now…

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Images credited to Lexi Gergel, edited by Calvin Marley

By Lexi Gergel

The fear of failure is greater than any other. 

And the thought of not being successful is terrifying. 

Overcoming both of these facts, that’s the journey of sports…

Back in third grade, I decided that I wanted to be a cheerleader. At the time, it was a fun after-school activity. I enjoyed cheering for the little recreation football teams. 

Once I turned 10, my grandparents took me to a Penn State basketball game. While I did not really have any interest in the game, I could not take my eyes off the cheerleaders. The most vivid memory in my mind from that day was when I looked up to my grandparents and said, “I want to be like them one day.”

From that day on, I began my cheerleading journey. 

At age 13, I realized that in order to live the life I have always imagined, I had to take a major step in my career. In 8th grade, my parents gave me the option to begin competitive cheerleading. 

Knowing that this would benefit my future, I was super excited to take on a new adventure. 

During my first season, I started to learn the basics of cheerleading. I did not grow too much as an athlete, but I was learning. Once the second season team placements came out, I was disappointed because I did not move up from level 2. 

This lit a fire under me.

I began practicing every single day, determined to be better. 

Through many ankle sprains and concussions, I was working on level 4 skills. While I loved cheering, it was mentally draining. I was fighting a battle against my own body trying to fit “the cheerleader look.”

I was overworking my body to an extreme in hopes of losing weight and having washboard abs to be a part of the standard. This season, I was looking forward to team placements. The anticipation of waiting a week to find out what level I would be placed on was killing me. 

In a matter of seconds, I could tell my progress paid off once I found out I was placed on a level 4 team for the following season. But at the same time, I knew I had to work harder. I kept pushing myself toward the next level each and every day. 

I began another mental battle as I was told that I was not good enough to ever be on the highest level. I wanted to give up, I didn’t want to keep going with all of the hate thrown at me but I realized that those quitting on me could not see the best in me. 

As my junior season rolled around, I realized that I had maxed out my learning abilities at my current cheer gym.

An opportunity came to me weeks later when I was offered a spot on a level 6, World Championship level team. 

This was something huge, but having to start a new journey with new people was a big change. I took a leap of faith, and less than a week later, I was practicing with athletes on a whole new level.

Being with these athletes made me work even harder, earning me multiple national champion titles. Working in an environment like this brought back my love for the sport and helped me to heal with what I had been through. 

On the flip side, I also began to see more athletes who fit the “cheerleader look.” Realizing that I didn’t look like them caused me to fall into a trap with food. 

I started eating a very strict diet which consisted of one piece of grilled chicken, a clementine, baby carrots, almonds, and for a treat, grapes. If I was still hungry, I would eat brown rice. I continued eating this exact diet for months and lost so much weight that my skills were falling behind. 

I began to lose myself again. 

I was working out at least twice a day outside of practice to help tone my body, almost dragging myself through each workout. Allowing myself to eat once a day was something I forced on myself until I lost too much weight that I was weak. Somehow, I understood that my body would not function at the level I needed it to if I kept eating like this. 

I began to eat a healthy, balanced diet to build more strength back up. 

At the end of the season, I decided that I was going to try out at Top Gun All-Stars, one of the best gyms in the country. When I got placed on their new level 6 team, I packed up my whole life in Pennsylvania and moved to Florida. 

The first three months were such an amazing experience. On August 11, 2020, I had one wrong landing from a tumbling pass that ended my season. At the time, I thought that I had just tweaked something in my knee. Knowing the amount of pressure there is in this sport at such a prestigious gym, I decided it was best to move back home. 

Two weeks later, I chose to do a private lesson back at my old gym. While I was still having knee problems, I knew I had to try to push myself again. About thirty minutes in, I heard a huge snap, fell to the floor, and every dream I ever had sunk out of my body and into the floor. 

I absolutely dreaded the thought of going to a doctor to see what was really wrong, but I had no choice.

When I heard that I tore my ACL, sprained both menisci, injured multiple other ligaments, and bruised the bone, my heart shattered into a million pieces. 

I proceeded to have surgery in hopes of being back on the mat one day. After the procedure, the doctor informed me that the amount of damage had put me out of cheerleading for at least 9 months, no exceptions. As determined as I was to prove him wrong, I was also convincing myself to give up. 

The thought of starting back at the very beginning was too much to think about. My desire to return outweighed the thoughts of quitting and I was back in physical therapy two days after surgery. 12 weeks later, I had a follow-up appointment that changed my entire mindset. My surgeon informed me that 2% of people that went through this surgical procedure had returned to their sport after four months of rehab. 

This triggered something in my mind to push as hard as I could to beat the odds. I started going to physical therapy 3 days a week, working with a trainer twice a week, and going to the gym on my own 4 days a week. Nothing was stopping me from returning to cheerleading this early. 

About 6 weeks later, I was back in a cheer gym, absolutely terrified of what stood in front of me. All I could think about was the sound of my life being taken away as I hit the floor. Through some tears, I began stunting again. 

While I was doing the bare minimum of cheer, it had never felt so good to be back but I was not satisfied with myself. Seeing that I had to work harder to be back where I was before, I spent the next month in Florida, practically living at Top Gun. 

During the season, I had received about 21 recruiting offers for the following season, my freshman year of college. Being recruited to schools such as Penn State, University of Minnesota, University of Delaware, and Purdue University was insane to me. The thought of being wanted by so many coaches and programs was motivating enough for me to be ready for the next season. 

As I kept pushing, I realized that the amount of pain I was dealing with was not worth it for one year. Trying to come up with a responsible decision broke my heart.

Again, I saw that I needed to take a year to recover. Declining such amazing offers was difficult, but it was best for my health. 

Once the decision was made to use this year as a progress year, I chose to go to the University of Central Florida. 

I took this as an opportunity to work harder. While I have this year to allow my body to fully recover, it is also giving me time to recover mentally from what cheerleading has put me through.

I love this sport with all my heart, but it has been a mental battle from the beginning. From being told that I was not good enough, to being too heavy and needing to lose weight, to mental blocks, cheer has put me through more than I can describe.

I dealt with eating disorders, loads of hate, countless injuries, and the feeling of being worn out from the age of 13. Returning to something that broke me down is a challenge, but a worthy challenge. 

All of the negativity made me feel a desire to quit so many times, but I knew it was not an option. Even though all of the pain these past 10 months, I know my story doesn’t end here. 

The opportunity for growth in all aspects is greater than it has ever been. I will not let the physical and mental pain break me for good. Dreams do not come from giving up.

The fear of failure and not being successful I’ve learned is quite a detrimental illusion in cheerleading and sports in their entirety. Your appearance, your performance, your style, your shape… all distractions to keep you from seeing what really matters which is just being you. 

I hope athletes won’t have to go through the highs and lows of their sports to see this realization. 

In return, I wish we all as people can eventually just celebrate and acknowledge athletes for their great achievement that is simply showing up each and every day and giving it their all regardless of the outcome. 

 

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