Today’s cheerleading is a far cry from the “two bits, four bits” of the past. The sport has become widespread and mega-competitive. Making it onto a high school cheer squad can be tough, and cheering in college – particularly for a Division 1 school – is downright rare.
By Jennifer Morrell | Photography courtesy of UGA and by Kathryn Ingall
For Cobb’s Emily Johnson, cheering in college was a goal and a dream she is living at The University of Georgia as a Georgia Bulldogs cheerleader. Johnson began her second year as a UGA cheerleader this fall, and the journey has been both challenging and rewarding.
As a young child, Johnson dreamed of cheering on the sidelines for Mount Paran Christian School. She tried out for the middle school cheer squad with no experience and having only taken a couple of tumbling classes.
“I almost didn’t make the team and actually got called back for a second evaluation,” Johnson says. “However, with a little luck and a prayer, I made the team.”
In middle school, she cheered sideline for football and basketball as well as on competition squads. During an eighth grade practice, which was held at The Stingray Allstars gym, a Stingray coach invited her to observe their practices and, perhaps, fill in on one of the teams.
“A week later, I ended up joining the Stingray Platinum team,” she says. “The Stingray Allstars competition cheer program challenged me to improve my tumbling and stunting skills, and introduced me to new friends from around the state of Georgia.”
The following year, she tried out for the Stingrays again and made the Amber team, a Level 5 Worlds (Cheerleading and Dance World Competition) team. This was the Big Time. A high school freshman that year, she also made the varsity cheer squad at Mount Paran.
Her dreams were taking shape.
Johnson continued to build on her success and rack up the wins with her squads, cheering throughout her high school career and for The Stingray Allstars. She eventually made the coveted Stingray Orange team, a Level 5 Worlds team with more Worlds championship wins than any other individual team in the nation. She was part of a Stingrays Orange team that won at Worlds and, that same year, won the state competition with her Mount Paran varsity squad. The wins kept coming.
“Cheer has inspired me to always strive for improvement and to never become complacent,” Johnson says. “Throughout my time as a cheerleader I have been blessed with some of the greatest coaches in the sport. They constantly encouraged me and my teammates to become better cheerleaders, but, more important, better people.”
Making it Happen
Johnson is part of UGA’s all-girl squad of 20, which cheer alongside a 20-person co-ed squad.
She serves as a base for her squad’s stunts, meaning she is on the ground holding up her teammate, rather than “flying” in the air.
“I am a main base and take pride in always catching my flyer and preventing injuries,” she says. “Every position in a stunt group is important. Without bases, back spots, and even front spots, the flyers wouldn’t be able to do all the cool stunts we do.”
In preparation for UGA cheer tryouts, Johnson attended four tryout clinics offered by the university while she was a junior and senior at Mount Paran. The tryouts are open to the public, so she attended while in high school to learn more about what was expected.
Although she also was accepted at Clemson University, her heart lay with UGA.
“In order to try out for the UGA squad, I had to get recommendation letters from my high school and Stingray coaches,” she says. “I also had to write a letter of intent, stating why I wanted to cheer at UGA.”
Now with the sports season underway, Johnson and her teammates practice three nights and have two morning workouts, along with one “open gym” night, during which they can stunt or practice tumbling. During the weeks when a home football game is scheduled, the squads practice at 6 a.m. on Friday morning to assure they are prepared for the game the next day.
In many ways, UGA cheerleaders are the face of the university. They participate in promotional appearances and cheer at women’s volleyball games, Gym Dogs’ gymnastics meets, and men’s and women’s basketball games. A member of Zeta Tau Alpha, she volunteers at fundraisers for the sorority’s philanthropy, breast cancer education and awareness.
“Keeping up with all the responsibilities of cheer and sorority life on top of academics can be extremely difficult and stressful at times,” Johnson says. “Our coach, Ben O’Brien, helps us stay focused on completing our school work by requiring a mandatory six hours of study hall per week in our student athlete center.”
No surprise, Johnson’s favorite part of UGA cheer is the football games, running onto the field in front of 93,000 people during the pre-game shows.
“It is in these moments that I realize how fortunate I am to go to the greatest school in the nation and lead the crowd in cheering on our many incredible teams,” she says. “I also love getting to meet kids at the many appearances we do. Each time I put on my uniform, I reminded that I am an ambassador for my university and a role model for many younger girls. I do my best to fulfill these duties and responsibilities to the best of my ability.”
A family approach
The dedication doesn’t stop with Johnson. Her mother, Laura, and father, Jim, have played large roles in her achievements as well.
“During her middle school and high school cheer career, I did do a lot of carpooling, was team mom for her high school cheer squad all four years, sat at endless hours of Stingray practices, and traveled all over the country to competitions with her,” Laura says, adding that she loved every minute of it. “I loved spending a lot of quality one-on-one time with Emily as we traveled around the country to her competitions.”
Today, Jim and Laura are involved with the UGA Spirit Parent’s Booster Club, sponsoring the “Cheers” tailgate at the UGA Conference Center for all cheerleaders before each home game.
“The parents are responsible for bringing food, and setting up and taking down the tailgates,” Laura says. “The Cheer tailgates are so much fun, and we have met and become lifelong friends with many of the wonderful UGA cheer parents. I cannot express how thunderstruck I was at Emily’s first home UGA football game, when they ran on the field in the middle of the UGA Redcoat Marching Band, waving flags and leading the team onto the field. What a sight, seeing her down there ‘Between the Hedges’ – her dream come true!”
UGA cheerleaders are never able to rest on their laurels. Coach O’Brien encourages the cheerleaders to keep up their skills by having them try out each year.
“No one is guaranteed a spot on the squad, so you must keep up with your skills and have a positive attitude at each practice to be considered for the squad the next year. Trying out again this past spring, I was almost equally as nervous as I was the first year, but my friends on the squad helped with their words of encouragement.”
Johnson hopes to cheer all four years at UGA, and then attend dental school. A biology-psychology double major with pre-dental/orthodontic intent, she plans to become an orthodontist. Her advice for younger girls hoping to cheer at the college level:
“Go to the clinics, introduce yourself to the college coaches, watch a tryout if at all possible, keep up your tumbling skills – usually a ‘full’ is required and, definitely, a standing tuck – and try out for the stunting position that you are best at,” she says, adding that it can be helpful to learn a variety of positions.
“Be confident, and never think that your dreams are too big to accomplish. Five years ago, I would have never dreamed that I would be cheering for the Georgia Bulldogs.”
Advice from a UGA cheer mom
Emily Johnson’s mother, Laura, offers the following advice to parents who want to help their children achieve the goal of cheering in college.
Make sure she truly loves cheerleading. It takes a lot of work, sacrifice and money for cheer gym competition squads. The dedication can require seven days per week, a sore and tired body, and a missed prom or opportunity to participate in other activities.
Get her into tumbling early. Division 1 college cheer squads require a standing tuck and, usually, a running backhand spring into full – not skills that can be picked up overnight.
Assure she gains experience. Whether through rec cheer, school cheer or all-star competition cheer, experience and knowhow are required for stunts, jumps, picking up cheers and band dances quickly, and leading the crowd (sideline cheer is important).
Make grades a priority. She must be academically accepted into the school before she can cheer there. With so much time spent training for and performing with cheer squads, time for studying is scarce and must be created during late nights, early mornings and weekends.
High moral standards are important. The members of the UGA cheer squad are ambassadors for their schools. In and out of uniform, they must be poised and personable, and show leadership.