Once upon a time, I was more than occasionally a cheerleader. It has been almost three complete seasons since I competed in that glorious, glittery uniform, but we all know it’s impossible to completely escape the cheer world. As the past three seasons have come and gone, I have become farther removed from the cheer world. The early competition season months, September - December(ish), are fairly easy to “ignore” (for lack of a better term), but, when NCA season comes around, the memories come flooding back and the tweets and #tbt Instagrams are incessant.
NCA is unlike any other competition. It is a huge production that can be invigorating, scary, heartbreaking, dream-fulfilling, and rewarding. The weeks leading up to NCA weekend are preceded by endless practices, countless stories about the “NCA Curse” or the intense fish bowl feeling of the main stage, and those intense lights! SO BRIGHT!
There are hundreds of teams competing for a handful of ridiculously large trophies, talk about a blood bath! (Or maybe a glitter bath). I only competed at NCA twice, but competing just once can teach you something valuable about hard work and not getting what you want. Losing isn’t failing and that is so apparent at high caliber competitions such as NCA.
My first year as an NCA competitor, I cheered for Ultimate Athletics Prodigy. We were the underdog BY FAR, but we were a team with heart, passion, attitude, and some shiny white uniforms. I remember going through the motions of warmups in that massive backroom with some of the biggest and baddest teams in the industry beside us. It’s an electric feeling, warmups at large nationals usually are, but NCA lives up to its hype. There are just SO MANY PEOPLE. Prodigy had big NCA National Champion dreams and unfortunately we went home in the bottom half of our division with a very injured teammate. She split her elbow into pieces during the first 30 seconds of our Day 1 performance… not fun. Things did not go as planned, but it was okay. (I’ll explain in a moment)
My second year as an NCA competitor was for the world-renowned California All Stars Cali Coed. Competing with an infamous team was a slightly different experience… everyone was watching you… practice, warmups, and of course during performances. There was a lot of pressure, a legacy to protect, a National Championship that was expected to be obtained. But, if there is one thing California All Stars knows how to do, it’s how to prepare their athletes for competition. Both physically and emotionally, every member of the program had been pushed to their limits in the “hell weeks” that preceded NCA weekend. Our beloved coach, Jeff McQueen, could inspire a rock to do a standing tuck if he wanted, and that’s the type of person you want cheering you on in that arena. By the time we headed to Dallas, we were ready.
At this point in the season, Cali Coed was doing full outs in the warmup room, unheard of, but what normalcy actually exists at California All Stars… (very little). We went through warmups and everything went as planned. The wait between the end of warmups and performance can be treacherous, especially at NCA where nothing has ever run on time…ever. The jitters and nervousness comes in waves and before stepping on that performance floor, my heart was in my throat. You can prepare for that moment all season, but actually experiencing it is completely different.
Walking into the arena and onto that competition floor is an awesomely bizarre feeling, the crowd is an entire story above you and making out faces is nearly impossible. But, you will certainly hear the yelling. It’s like being famous! Or a goldfish!
I dropped my stunt to the ground Day 1 while I was on Cali Coed. That was rough. We hit a nearly flawless routine Day 2 and went home in third place, discouraged to say the least. But, the experience taught us that even through insane preparation, execution is really all that matters.
Both years, the motivation to WIN was what carried us through endless practices, pained bodies, and 3 million 8-counts. I think some people would argue that this is delusional because in reality, only one team is actually going to win your division. Statistically speaking, the odds are not in your favor, no matter what team you’re on. So many things have to go perfectly right at the exact same time for you to go home as an NCA Champion. Sounds disheartening.
But, that’s what makes the cheerleading industry so great. Cheerleaders know what they’re doing is insane and ridiculous (and if you don’t think it’s amazing, I have some Youtube videos to educate you). As a cheerleader, you know what’s at stake and how good the other teams are, but instead of being discouraged, there is a love for this sport that perpetuates everything that is good about fierce competition. The best of the best pushing each other to new levels.
You may not win this weekend, you might make a mistake, and a dream may never become a reality. But, you could win, you could be flawless, and all your dreams could come true. And that’s what it’s all about.
A couple of years ago, NCA started using the phrase #TheWorkIsWorthIt, and I’m telling you as a retired cheerleader, three years out of the game, the work WAS worth it, the work will ALWAYS be worth it, regardless of your final placement. Everyone will not win a trophy, but everyone has the opportunity to put their hard work out on that mat and do something truly amazing. These dreams and lessons will follow you, so put your best foot forward.
Now go out there, be beautiful, chase your dreams and enjoy this experience for everything that it is.