Skilled, dedicated athletes compete in the most spirited sport
Pua Castagnetti executes a bow–and–arrow with a boost from Kelvin Lam
Next to football, it’s one of the riskiest collegiate sports for catastrophic injuries. The coach is a University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa letter winner who led University of Washington Husky teams to top-five national finishes two years in a row. Recruited locally and nationally, his UH squad stands best in the west and fifth in the nation. Members say things like "you just have to stay strong and keep on working at it."
We’re talking cheerleading.
Cheerleaders combine dance and gymnastics elements with stunting to root on other teams—the Mānoa squad cheers at football, women’s volleyball and men’s and women’s basketball games—as well as competing themselves.
Their fifth-place finish at the National College Cheerleading Championship in Orlando in January 2006 was bittersweet, says Head Coach Mike Baker. "This was the best team UH has ever had. We came into nationals with the highest skill level and a great amount of creativity. A missed stunt in the second half of the routine threw us out of our rhythm and we ended flat. On another note, anytime you can place in the top five in the country, it’s a great honor."
And a lot of work. "I don’t think people realize how much time it takes and how much effort we put into it," says cheerleader Kehau DeMello, new this season from Mililani. "It takes personal toughness, patience and perseverance. The stunts and tumbling that we do doesn’t just happen; we have to keep trying over and over and over again."
Consider tryout requirements: three standing back tucks in a row, a back-handspring back tuck, a round-off back-handspring back tuck layout…and that’s just the tumbling portion. Candidates are judged on partner stunts, gymnastic skills, motion placement and sharpness, showmanship and poise, attitude and routines.
Everyone must tryout, whether they’re incoming freshmen, transfer students or returnees, and more is expected of veterans—a freshman female must execute three partner stunts, a returning male must do 11.
"The tryouts are very competitive. We look for the type of person who is dedicated to representing UH and the state of Hawaiʻi in the highest esteem." Baker says. "During summers, I travel across the country looking for good representatives for UH." He also focuses on developing local talent.
Rigorous tryouts are just the beginning. Kristin Kowalkowski, a third-year Mānoa cheerleader and Honor Society member from Snoqualmie, Wash., explains: "At some points in the year, especially getting ready for football season and nationals, we practice six days per week, and many of those are twice per day. Practices include weightlifting, sprint conditioning, stunting and tumbling and executing routines over and over until they are perfectly synchronized."
Competing requires fundraising. A paid bid covers hotel, fees and travel within the continental U.S., but the team pays airfare to Los Angeles. Baker may send just a few couples to compete in partner stunts this year while setting up funding for the program.
"It is fun to represent UH on the mainland. We really like to put on a show," he says. "We most likely have the highest level of skill in the country, but the entertainment aspect is what we really focus on. We show our aloha spirit when traveling, and everyone seems to like our style."
Former Maryknoll cheerleader and NCA national squad member Kelvin Lam, agrees. "Here, I actually get a chance to improve my skills with a fantastic group of people who are incredibly talented, and we all get along marvelously."
The squad loves being part of home games and school activities, says Baker, promising some new ways to get game crowds as loud as possible this year.
"The fans in Hawaiʻi are some of the best in the nation. Women’s volleyball is one of our favorite sports to cheer for because the crowd is so fun. College squads across the country are now trying to emulate the way the University of Hawaiʻi does things. That’s a great feeling."