I want to tell you about one of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever lived through. It was my freshman year in high school, and my competitive cheerleading squad was about to participate in our very first competition. We were standing behind a huge white screen so that everyone in the crowd could see our silhouettes behind it. The music blasted through huge speakers. The announcer’s voice roared in my ears. Our coach had instructed us to jump up and down and make huge movements so they’d be noticeable behind the screen. It was all I could do to stand up, my legs shook so badly, much less jump up and down and wave my arms in the air. I looked over at my friend, Holly, and we both let out screams of sheer terror.
But let’s back up a few months, when our cheer coach, Doug, told us that this year—for the first time ever—our school would have a competitive squad. It would be open to anyone who wanted to participate, no matter what grade you were in. Team members would be selected based on their try-out scores and academic grades. Being a huge fan of Bring It On, of course I signed up. My friends and I could quote that movie backward and forward, and I’d always dreamed of being able to compete with my squad. I signed up and so did my entire stunt group—Laina, Sherita, and Holly. Luckily we all made it! Unluckily, since I was on the team with much stronger juniors and seniors, I was going to move from back spot position to flyer. On top of this, since I could do a back handspring, my coach wanted me to be able to do a back tuck by the time our competition date rolled around.
We had weekday practices for the regular, non-competitive squad and Saturday practices for the competitive one. These Saturday practices included intense physical workouts and endless drilling of the routine, tumbling passes, and stunts. I’d go home exhausted and beyond sore. All I wanted to do was collapse into bed! But we’d come back and work even harder the next week.
Over the next few months, I grew so close with my teammates. We were accomplishing feats of strength and agility that I’d never imagined were possible. Throwing each other up and twisting in the air. Flinging my body toward the floor, flipping and jumping and slamming, pushing my scrawny muscles to their limit. I danced my heart out, yelled until my throat was raw, ate the mat, skinned my elbows and knees, got kicked in the face, fell down, and then fell down some more, and repeated it and repeated it and repeat it, until I could do the routine in my sleep.
Due to the size of our squad, we were put in the most popular bracket—the toughest competition. We watched videos of all the best teams, studying how precise and flawless their routines were. The closer we got to our competition date, the more I felt my nerves crawling up my throat. I still didn’t have my back tuck. I wasn’t hitting my stunts on the beat every…single…time…like I was supposed to. Our arms weren’t sharp enough. Our dance was sloppy in places. The arena was huge, and if we didn’t yell louder, our voices wouldn’t make it to the front row, much less the back of the stands.
But we couldn’t make time go any slower, and before we knew it, our competition day had arrived. Each of us wore our hair in tight pigtail braids, and we all wore the same makeup—black eyeliner, red lips, lots of blush, so we wouldn’t get washed out by all those lights!
We had a few minutes on a mat in a gymnasium to warm up our tumbling passes and stunts, but the mat was shared with other squads. I waited in line in one corner behind three other girls to do my round-off, back handspring, back tuck. Holly stood in another corner. We kept meeting each other’s eyes, bouncing from foot to foot.
Girl one went—round-off, back handspring, back handspring, back tuck—nailed it.
My fingertips felt numb. I didn’t think that was normal. What if it messed up my tumbling? But I had to warm up. We only had a few minutes on the mat.
Girl two took off—round-off, back handspring, back layout—supremely elegant and graceful. She made it look so effortless.
I shook my hands, trying to get some blood circulating, trying to feel anything other than these wild, nauseating nerves whipping through me.
Girl three took off—round-off, back handspring, back handspring—full! My eyes widened. She flipped and twisted and landed with her feet flat and solid. I’m next. I’m next, and I’m supposed to follow that?
I raised my hands above my head, giving my arms one last stretch. I took two powerful steps…
Round-off, back handspring, and I was flying and I was upside down, and then I was back on the ground.
I hit it! I hit my back tuck! I didn’t under-rotate, didn’t over-rotate. I just floated through the air like I’d been doing back tucks for years. A surge of confidence swept through me. The nerves eased up a bit, and I trotted to a different mat where the rest of my stunt group was waiting to do a couple liberties and scorpions with me, stunts where I’d go up on one leg and hit different positions at the top.
After our warmup, we walked through a series of twisting hallways. Our performance was only minutes away. As we walked, the nerves came back bigger and more terrifying than ever. We stood huddled together outside the on-deck area in a hallway with ugly beige tiling and off-white walls. One of the girls had gone pale in the face and said, “I have to go poop.”
Holly responded, “You don’t have time. We only have two minutes!”
Our teammate shook her head and ran down the hall, “I can’t hold it.”
Looking back, I’m not sure why were all so utterly terrified. Maybe because we’d worked so hard and wanted to do so well, but it was undeniable that a sense of pure terror had worked its way into all of us. Holly, Sherita, Laina, and I stood together holding hands, trembling, waiting until the organizers told us to move behind the screen. Thankfully our other teammate made it back in time, and then there we were—lights shining through the screen as Holly and I shrieked at all the emotion ripping through our bodies.
They pulled the screen. We ran onto the mat, smiles in place, and got into position. After the music started, I don’t remember much of the routine. I do know that I completely bombed my back tuck. I can’t recall how most of the stunts went, but I know at least one of them fell. When we got our scores later in the day, we were definitely toward the very bottom of the group. We didn’t make it past the first round, which meant there was no way we’d make it to the next phase of the competition.
Honestly, driving home that night I felt like a failure, especially with my tumbling. I’d worked so hard, and I knew I could do it. Especially since I’d done my tumbling pass so perfectly only minutes before. But my nerves got the better of me, and I blew it.
Now, though, I look back on our competition squad, destined to compete for only two years before Doug stepped down as cheer coach, and I’m so very proud of us. We were competing with squads who worked on their tumbling and stunts seven days a week, with girls who lived and breathed cheerleading. We didn’t hold our own, but we got out there and we did it, choking down our fear and giving it everything we had. Sometimes we can be brave and have courage and do the thing that scares the poop out of us, and in the end, we can still fail.
But I have these incredible memories, and I’m still friends with all my stunt group girls—Holly, Sherita, and Laina—that’s worth all the terror and all the failed back tucks.
If this quote resonates with you, we’ve created desktop and mobile backgrounds for you to download for free! Just click the image of the version you’d prefer. Hand-lettering designed by Allison Hyde.