An unexpected chance to compete at the World School Cheerleading Competition in Florida last month saw a team of students from Mobile Central High turn the heads of judges with performances that earned them a placement of fourth overall in the non-tumbling division and an additional prize as best entry from Canada.
"We weren’t planning to travel this year at all," said coach Aprille Whelan, who started out on the team as a student cheerleader eight years ago when it was introduced to Mobile by her cousin Amanda Hewitt and has continued on as coach even now that she is a teacher herself at Roncalli in Avondale.
The invitation to Florida, which included all expenses being paid aside from air travel, came from the International Cheerleading Union and stemmed from Mobile’s capture of the Canadian national championship held in Niagara Falls last year. The union invited select teams from other provinces as well.
Some 21 cheerleaders along with coaches made the trip to Orlando, Florida, where they were housed at the Disney Resort with some 1,000 other teams. "It was crazy, there were cheerleaders everywhere," said Whelan, explaining the United States High School championships were being held the same time as the world event. Teams came from Jamaica, Mexico, Ecuador and other countries.
Why is Mobile so good at cheerleading?
"I don’t know," said Whelan, laughing. "I guess it’s where we started from the bottom and over time worked our way up."
The program has benefited, she allowed, from the fact the school runs from Grades 7 to 12, meaning students who are interested in cheerleading get seven years to participate on the team. That means the team’s composition doesn’t change much from year to year. "We lose three or four kids a year but we never have a year where we have to completely start over," Whelan said.
Though the team practices only twice a week, the sessions are crucial and members seldom miss one. The Mobile squad is undefeated in provincial cheerleading competitions.
"They just seem to be getting better and better," said Whelan.
The friendships formed by such a dedicated group of athletes are special, she added. It’s not uncommon to see Grade 12 members spending time with Grade 7 teammates outside of the gym.
The Florida trip was a nice surprise. Along with competing, the Mobile students were given four day park passes at the Magic Kingdom and other Disney venues. "It was an amazing trip overall," said Whelan, who said the team members didn’t have any trouble focusing on the competition, despite the attractions of the setting.
Not long after the team returned from Florida, Whelan noted, one of the students approached her, because she was having trouble filling out a scholarship application that included space for 50 words to describe her biggest accomplishment. "She said, ‘Of course I chose cheerleading,’" Whelan said. "’But here I am 850 words later and I can’t find a way of wrapping it up about how much cheerleading has changed my life.’ That’s the type of thing it is. They truly are die hard about it and there’s nowhere else they’d rather be than in the gym practicing. I could tell them we’re going to practice five days in a row and they’d be there, it wouldn’t matter."