Twenty women wearing orange shorts and navy tops stand on a blue mat and listen as a coach counts down their warmup routine.
“Five, six, seven, eight, ONE …” shouts Magen Brock (Educ ’07), an assistant coach.
Twenty pairs of shoulders hunch.
“… two, three, FOUR …”
Like synchronized swimmers, the women simultaneously flip heels-over-head backward. Most land squarely, though there are a few wobbles and missteps.
“Pull in your knees,” head coach Kelley Haney barks to one student.
“… five, six, seven, eight, ONE, two ...” Brock continues, and the routine repeats. On another set of mats, men also practice flips and handsprings as they prepare for more complicated maneuvers with their female partners—statuesque midair poses that belie the balance and strength required to convey grace.
It’s a Thursday night in John Paul Jones Arena, and UVA’s cheerleaders are refining their pyramids, poise and polish before Saturday’s football game, when they will lead nearly 60,000 fans in energetic, high-volume support of the Cavaliers.
They’ll have the traditional megaphones and pompoms, but they won’t be cheering “Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar …”
“That went out in the ’90s,” Haney says with a smile. It’s only one of the changes she’s seen in a lifetime of cheering, 14 years of which have been as UVA’s head coach. Now there are pyramids with “flyers” and “bases,” basket tosses and a host of safety measures.
“The safety regulations that are in place now are a lot more stringent than in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which is a good thing,” Haney says. “We see fewer injuries.”
That doesn’t mean they don’t occur. Taylor Miller (Col ’13), who has been leading cheers since elementary school, got a bloody nose during the first practice this year. “Fortunately, I didn’t get any black eyes,” she says. “Relatively, it is a safe sport … but things can go wrong, like in any sport.”
Beyond risk of injury, the physical demands of strength and agility link cheerleading to other sports. Kiran Moghe (Col ’12), one of seven men on the coed team, found that, despite being a lifelong gymnast, he lacked the strength to be a successful cheerleader.
“This was the first time in my life I’ve ever found myself having to lift weights,” he says. “The first time I had to do a bench press, it was emasculating, to say the least.”
Assistant coach Alex Johnson (Col ’07) puts it differently. “When that fourth quarter rolls around and you’ve been throwing a girl in the air for four hours and you’re sucking wind, you’re wishing your cardio was a little better.”
The squad practices together at least twice a week, and members must fit in at least three additional individual workouts a week. Plus, Haney says, there are timed runs—two miles at an 8-minute-a-mile pace or better.
Factor in time spent at games—full days for football, long evenings for basketball and odd hours for other sports—plus the demands of academics, and there’s little time for much else.
“It’s pretty demanding, but I like being busy,” says Brielle Ferguson (Col ’12). “It helps me structure my time better if I know I have things that I need to do.”
The squad receives funds from the Athletics Department, but members must raise an additional $15,000 to cover expenses, so most cheerleaders participate in summer camps and other fundraising activities. Members can qualify for book stipends—the amount increases each year they participate so that a fourth-year would receive $1,000. “It’s been a long fight to get that money,” Haney says.
Most people don’t appreciate the cost, time, physical effort and sacrifice required to be a UVA cheerleader, several members said. But the payoff is worth it, they add.
“I’m not going to lie. There’s really no feeling like standing in the middle of the field and running the flag for the first time as the game is starting,” Moghe says.
“My heart does not stop racing until well into the second quarter because it is such an adrenaline rush,” Miller adds. “It’s unlike any other experience that I’ve ever been through, and that’s why I do it.”