All-star cheer athletics combine daunting gymnastics, stunting and dance – and the young competitors at Hayden’s Spotlight Studios North Star just bested many of the country’s most accomplished teams.
Spotlight’s senior coed 3 all-star cheer team placed third in the international division of the Varsity All Star Summit Championship, held May 3-6 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Spotlight, which is comprised of kids from both Eastern Washington and North Idaho, competed against many teams from significantly larger gyms.
Head coach and Spotlight owner Stacey Rae Steinwandel, said that while the gym is considered a Division 2-size organization, all-star cheer still allows gyms to choose their level of competition.
“We don’t fall in by size, but we opt into Division 1 so we can compete against the best of the best,” Steinwandel said. “It takes a level of courage on the part of the kids and parents to compete on this whole other level.”
Maximum enrollment for her facility is 100-125 kids. At Summit, many teams are culled from gyms with more than 500 athletes. The senior teams at Spotlight are comprised of around 20 students ages 10 to 19, though the gym has programming and junior teams for even younger kids.
The United States All Star Federation oversees rules, guidelines and safety for its abundant network of competitions across the country. Teams compete at regional events to earn bids to the Summit championship, with the best teams accruing enough high scores to earn paid bids to the Orlando competition.
“They call it the climb,” Steinwandel said. “You’re competing in places with upwards of 200-300 teams, and you have to place super high.”
Spotlight took four teams to Summit this year – two junior and two senior level teams, with both senior level teams reaching finals.
Team captain Baylee Ramsey said that while the team knew they were well-positioned for success this year, Summit adds a whole new level of competition.
“Since we were in the international group, we had no clue what we were going against,” Ramsey said. “You get to see how they practice and talk to them a little bit, but sometimes we’d have such different ways of doing cheers or stunts.”
The USASF-organized competitions have led to increased awareness and popularity for the sport, with a spot in the Olympics soon on the horizon, Steinwandel said.
“The sport started out as an assist to other people’s sports – we were cheering on other people’s successes,” Steinwandel said. “This is different than the history of sideline cheer – we are a professionally regulated group with high levels of training and development – this is dance aerobics, stunting, high-level gymnastics, … and we put that into music and a routine where you have to have true unison and perfect technique.”
That unique combination is what attracted many of Spotlight’s senior competitors. Captain Hailee Duvall, 16, just finished her 10th year at the gym.
“I first saw them in the Fourth of July Parade, and I wanted to try it out,” Duvall said. “I was a competitive dancer, then I moved into cheerleading and saw that I could do the dance part and do all these cool tricks and flips.”
Anthony Neff, 17, discovered Spotlight at age 14 when he went with his mom to drop his sister off at the gym.
“I saw these guys flipping people around as soon as I walked in,” Neff said. “I saw them flying through the air, and I thought I have to do that … they taught me how to do a backflip within my first day of being there.”
Neff said much of the physical aspects came naturally to him, but when he joined his first junior team at Summit a couple years ago, he found a new challenge in having to master a 2-minute and 30-second routine.
“When you’re doing a routine you have to perform it – you have to make it look good,” he said.
Steinwandel compared the complex scoring of all-star cheer to what people see on an Olympic level in gymnastics, but the choreography aspect takes it into even more complex territory.
“It is the ultimate team sport because you literally can’t do it unless everyone shows up,” Steinwandel said. “When you come out of it, you are going to be able to handle pressure, have great team communication and a confidence in yourself. It takes long-term practice, focus and dedication.”
An individual team features a wide age range, allowing team captains and older kids to serve as mentors to the younger set.
“If you’re on the senior coed team, then you have the skills – it’s not like you’re the weakest link,” Duvall said of her younger teammates. “But it’s a big mindset difference. As the captain you have to make sure the transition is easier, and you have to look out for the little ones.”
Neff said teammates don’t compare themselves by age.
“Most of the little kids are really mature for their age; they don’t act like you think little kids normally would,” he said.
All-star cheer allows athletes to compete until age 19, and the most accomplished athletes can use the experience as a springboard for scholarships into college cheer programs. But there are more opportunities in the sport as it continues to gain popularity. Ramsey wants to follow in her older sister’s path and become a coach. She already teaches an introductory class for ages 4-6 at the gym.
“It’s great – they like to come early and watch me on the floor,” Ramsey said. “I want to become one of the head coaches – work with them just to be able to have those kids go through what I went through.”
With the competitive season finished, Spotlight teams have already begun training for next season. They’re working on technique this summer before readying a routine that will serve as the anchor to an entire season of competition. The intention is another strong climb to the Summit.
“When you come here you become part of a family,” Neff said. “It’s a super trusted bond and we all work extremely hard. There will be some tense moments but it will always be worth it in the end.”
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