Cheering their way to the top

Junior Gracie Ross and sophomore Lauren Cullen both participate in competitive cheer and their teams competed in the worlds competition this year.

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Cheering their way to the top

Sophomore Lauren Cullen (second group from the right, far left on the base) cheers with her team (photo courtesy of Cullen).

Sophomore Lauren Cullen (second group from the right, far left on the base) cheers with her team (photo courtesy of Cullen).

Sophomore Lauren Cullen (second group from the right, far left on the base) cheers with her team (photo courtesy of Cullen).

Sophomore Lauren Cullen (second group from the right, far left on the base) cheers with her team (photo courtesy of Cullen).

Lauren Fischer, Staff Writer

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She twists and twirls through the air, attempting to get her routine just right. The crowd cheers her on, but all she is focused on is perfecting the complex pattern of flips and turns. When she finishes, she sees her teammates smiling, supportive faces, and hears the roar of the crowd in her ears.

Junior Gracie Ross and sophomore Lauren Cullen are familiar with this sensation of performing. Cullen began competitive cheer in seventh grade in the Kansas City Athletic Cheer program, and she has worked her way up to the Platinum team. Ross has participated in competitive cheer since she was three, and continues to compete with the Fierce Five competitive cheer team.

Ross said competitive cheer is different from school cheerleading in a few aspects. For one, competitive cheerleaders do not do sideline cheering, and they also do not have a team to cheer on at events.

“Competitive cheer is a combination of gymnastics, dance and acrobatics,” Ross said. “It’s a lot different from high school cheer or sideline cheer; a lot of people think it’s the same thing.”

Kristi Whitney, one of Ross’s coaches for Fierce Five, has coached competitive cheer for twenty years and said competitive cheer focuses more on perfecting skills for competitions rather than cheering on a team.

“Competitive cheer is more of a sport, because you’re competing against other people with the same skills as you are, just as you are in football or basketball, and you are working to perfect skills that are going to be scored,” Whitney said.

In addition to competitive cheer, Cullen said she also participates in cheer at BVNW. Cullen said while being a part of two cheer teams can sometimes prove difficult, her years of gymnastics prepared her for the large time commitment and busy schedule.

“I feel like I can definitely take things out of both [competitive and high school cheer], but competitive cheer is definitely harder and more challenging,” Cullen said. “High school cheer is a lot more fun and a lot more light, and it’s not as intense.”

Ross said she tried to do high school and competitive cheer her freshman year at Blue Valley West, but the overall time commitment was an issue. She said at times she would be going to the gym for competitive cheer, then back to the school for a game and then to the gym again.

Despite the past issues of juggling high school cheer and competitive cheer, Ross will be joining the BVNW varsity cheer team for the 2016-2017 school year.

In addition to the busy practice schedule, Ross said her team also travels for various competitions and events. Even though traveling requires more time commitment, Ross said it is her favorite aspect of competitive cheerleading.

“We get to go to cool places, like we go to Florida twice a year, Vegas, Georgia [and] Texas,” Ross said. “We go to really fun places, and it’s fun just to be traveling with the team.”

Ross’s team is a part of the KC Cheer program, and is one of the two teams from the program that compete in the World Championships of All-Star cheerleading. The World Championship is held once every year in Orlando, Fla. Ross said this is her favorite trip her team takes.

“You have to get invited to be [at the World Championship], so out of all the teams in the world only select teams get invited to go to Worlds in the first place,” Ross said. “There’s around 300 teams in my division that go to Worlds, and then out of those 300 they take the top ten.”

Cullen said, after a rough start to the season, her team began practicing harder and got invited to the World Championships at a competition in Las Vegas.

“We ended up going out and doing two really good routines and that got us a bid,” Cullen said. “Our goal is to just do the best we can and I think with how much we’ve improved we’re going to do that.”

Ross said her team has especially high hopes for this year’s World Championships, after placing fourth in 2014 and fifth in 2015.

Ross said her team has also gained more stamina to do well in the World Championships after winning their division and overall at the American Spirit Championships. The American Spirit Championships took place from Jan. 30-31 in Oklahoma City. Ross said her team has won their division, but has never won overall.

“[Winning the American Spirit Championships] has given our team a new confidence, because in the beginning of this year, we had nine new people, so we thought that this was going to be more of a rebuilding year,” Ross said. “We didn’t think we were going to be very good, but then winning that national competition gave us the confidence that we can do it and since then, we’ve all set our goals higher.”

Ross’ mother, Angie Axpell, said she has noticed the improvement in Ross’s cheer team over the years, even more so recently.

“[Gracie’s team] has grown to be consistently in the top five in their division, and they have about 100 teams in their division across the country, so that’s quite an accomplishment for her so I’m definitely proud of her what she’s grown to accomplish,” Axpell said.

Ross said with the American Spirit Championships under their belts,  her team went to the World Championships this year full of confidence.

“I want to [place in the] top three; that’s my goal going into Worlds because [we’ve] gotten fourth and fifth and that’s so close, and it’s just really frustrating because the top three teams get the big trophies,” Ross said. “My goal since I was little is to win, and our team this year so far is the team that will be able to do it.”

Ross’ team placed fifth overall at the World Championships.