Three Cheers for Cheerleaders!

Flying high with the Eaglecrest cheerleaders and their competitive sport.

Jo Jo doesn't have a background in gymnastics or tumbling, like some of the other girls. She competed in a sport known as precision ice-skating -- synchronized swimming on ice with about 21 girls -- and her team won the national championship. Her tiny frame, fearlessness and athleticism make her a prototypical "flyer," one of the girls flung into the air during cheerleading routines. At practices, when Hansen-Vigil asks for feedback, Jo Jo is repeatedly the first person to pipe up. She also, perhaps unconsciously, drifts away from the team's semi-circles and resting moments, and she often stretches farthest from the group.

Her relationship with her coach ("I've got her number on my speed dial") is so close that she gets teased by her teammates as being the "suckup." Yet no one on her squad questions Jo Jo's commitment or her passion for cheerleading. The license plate on her car reads "CHERLDR."

"This team is my whole life," she says. "Every girl on this team is like my best friend. Outside of cheerleading, I don't feel complete. When I come in here and's the highlight of my day."

Anthony Camera
Coach Gwen Hansen-Vigil keeps her squad on firm footing.
Anthony Camera
Coach Gwen Hansen-Vigil keeps her squad on firm footing.

On the night of December 8, the Denver Coliseum is as keyed up with rambunctious teenage fans as it would be for a state football championship. Outside, you can tell it's a high school event from all the breakneck driving going on and the parking lot filled with highly decorated vehicles. One monster 4-x-4 truck rumbles by with the license plate "ITSALGD."

Inside, there are about 2,000 cheerleaders and about 8,000 proud parents, administrators, brothers and sisters. The Eaglecrest section is also filled with cheerleaders and parents from years past.

Since only one cheerleading team can be on the floor at a time, the tournament is a long, drawn-out game of waiting, waiting, and more waiting. The first time Eaglecrest performs, in the preliminary round, is at 3:24 p.m. Now they'll have to bide their time until nearly 8 p.m. to find out if they'll perform in the finals round.

The preliminary round is considered such a shoe-in for Eaglecrest that the girls overlook its importance. In the first minute of their performance, three girls building a base clumsily bump into each other while lifting up their flyer. Once they try to correct their mistake, they overcompensate, then fall apart and drop their airborne teammate to the mat. At the end of the routine, Jo Jo looks wobbly in the final pyramid, but only an eagle-eyed judge might notice. When the girls run off the mat, there are shrieks, hugs and tears -- a tradition that every team at the tournament shares as they exit the floor, win or lose.

But the Eaglecrest girls are crying because they're afraid of getting knocked out in the first round. To make things worse, they'll have to wait four and a half hours to learn their fate.

Most of the girls have brought sleeping bags and homework to pass the time. The seating section they've taken over resembles the morning after a slumber party. Jo Jo, however, brings nothing to the tournaments. She gets too antsy to do anything, she says. She can't concentrate on homework. She paces, walks around, stays fidgety.

After more than three hours, the wait is getting to her. All afternoon, her teammates have been quizzing each other, talking to other cheerleaders, keeping an eye on the competition. Despite Hansen-Vigil's suggestions otherwise, some of the girls admit it's impossible not to check out the competition on the mat. Hansen-Vigil's husband, the team's unofficial spy at the competition, has assured the girls their mistakes weren't appalling. "He's a good judge for that stuff," Jo Jo says, "so I trust him."

With just fifteen minutes to go, Jo Jo's intensity is turning into fear of the worst. She says if the team doesn't get into the finals, she and the rest of the squad will hear all about it at school. "There's a lot of pressure right now. Everyone at school is like," -- here she does an impersonation of a dopey teenage boy -- "'You better win the title.'" She shakes her head and exhales.

Jo Jo has a pillow folded over in her arms. Her face is blank. She offers, "I don't know what I'll do if we don't get into finals." She thinks it over for a few good seconds. "I'll just be really, really mad."

A few minutes later, the judges are ready to announce their decision. Only four teams will advance to the finals. The Eaglecrest girls gather in their section and hold hands. They've never prayed so hard just to get past the preliminary round. After the judge lists the first three squads, they tighten their grip. "And in fourth place," the judge says. Pause. "Eagle --"

The girls scream themselves right out of their chairs.

About the time the results are posted, the chatter starts to circle the Coliseum: Eaglecrest got into the finals on their rep, not their performance.

The first-place team, Fruita Monument, scored a 90, Cherry Creek an 89, and Standley Lake an 88. Eaglecrest squeaked in with an 87. One tournament official, who declined to give her name, said, "If they weren't Eaglecrest, they wouldn't have gotten in. No way, no way, no way. The team after them? They got robbed."

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