Jenna Kass, 16, takes a deep breath and slowly exhales. The bass from the speakers shakes the floor and the tension builds in her chest. Reno Elite is on deck.
Kass has been a member of Reno Elite’s competition team for four years. In April 2014, Reno Elite’s Teal team traveled to Orlando, Florida as a small senior co-ed level five team at the worlds competition. Competitions generally have teams compete in levels one through five, in the tiny, mini, youth, junior or senior age group.
Reno Elite Teal won a bid to worlds at the PacWest competition. This team had never been to worlds before, and they were ready to prove they could compete at this level.
The previous team’s music stopped and the crowd roared. Kass’s team huddled together backstage waiting for their name to be called. Her hands started to shake, and a shiver ran from the top of her neck down her spine and through her shoulders. She was ready.
Before the competition started all of the teams attending went to DisneyWorld. Kass loved being in an environment where everyone respected cheer. It was very different from Reno.
“People not involved in cheer have a very hard time taking us seriously,” Kass said.
Kass is not only on a competition cheer team, she is a junior on the varsity cheer team at McQueen High School.
“People at my school have very little respect for competition cheer, but they have zero respect for sideline cheer,” Kass said. “They think it’s a joke.”
It’s a cold Friday night at McQueen High School and the home football team is beating the Spanish Springs Cougars 35-24 in the third quarter. The McQueen cheerleaders throw candy to their fans during a timeout then return to their boxes. Kass feels something hit her shoulder so she looks down and sees one of the Snickers candy bars the team had just thrown. She turns around to see the student section throwing the candy back at her team.
Kass could not believe that her peers had so little respect for her and her team. The cheer team kept their composure and waited as the last few candy bars were thrown. They knew getting angry would fuel the fire of the students throwing candy.
The coach informed administration of the incident who said they would take care of it, but the situation wasn’t brought up again.
“If someone threw something at the football or basketball team they would be ejected, maybe even suspended, but since it is the cheer team nobody cares,” Kass said.
In Orlando, Florida during the 2014 worlds competition Kass was surrounded by people who respected her passion. Not only other cheerleaders, but random people in the DisneyWorld park who would wish her and her teammates luck when they walked past in their Reno Elite garb.
Kass said other teams from across the country competing in this competition have not experienced the same disrespect as the girls from Reno. Competition cheer and even sideline cheer is a lot more popular in east coast states, southern states and California.
Even with the current lack of respect for cheerleaders in Reno, it is nowhere near what it was four years ago before Reno Elite was established.
Randy and JoAnn Bryant are the owners of the Reno Elite gym. They previously owned a gym in Orange County where competition cheer is very popular. They moved to Reno in 2010 because they wanted to raise their three kids in a better environment, and thought Reno was a great choice.
“When we first got here Reno was clearly not established in competitive cheer,” JoAnn Bryant said. “There were a couple of teams but they were not offering the same level or opportunity of experience that other teams across the country had, and Randy and I were able to provide that to the Reno area.”
The first year Reno Elite joined the competitive cheer scene, the gym had three competitive teams: Mini level one Reno Elite Sapphires, junior level one Reno Elite Diamonds and junior level two Reno Elite Emeralds. There were 23 athletes, all girls, divided among these three teams, and some athletes were on more than one team. This year there are eight teams with 140 athletes including some boys. One of the eight teams is a special needs team.
As the gym grew in numbers and popularity, the Bryants offered even more opportunities to the community which included more than just cheer, Randy Bryant not only had a background in cheer, he was very familiar with pole-vaulting, so he added Raise the Bar Pole Vault Club to his gym, and had five athletes compete in the National Junior Olympics in 2013. One of the five, Makayla Linebarger, won her age group at this competition and broke the former record. The gym also has tumbling classes for those that want to learn how to tumble but do not want to be on a team that competes, open gym and birthday parties where children can play on trampolines and bounce houses.
“Randy and I spend anywhere between 60 and 80 hours a week at the gym,” JoAnn Bryant said.
Many people argue that cheer is not a sport, and some even say cheerleaders should not be considered athletes.
Not everyone knows the difference between sideline and competition cheer. Competition cheerleaders do not cheer for a football or basketball team, they focus their entire season on perfecting a single two minute and 30 second routine they perform in their own competitions. Competition cheerleaders do not actually cheer, their routines consist of stunting, tumbling, jumps and dance.
Kass agrees that sideline cheer should not be considered a sport, but strongly believes competition cheer should be.
Kim Anastassatos is the cheer coach at the Uninversity of Nevada Reno. Anastassatos thinks neither sideline nor competition cheer should be considered a sport.
“Both are different from other sports as there is never one winner and one loser,” Anastassatos said. “Judging in competition cheer is based on opinion and style, likes and dislikes.”
She thinks if cheer were to become a sport it would alter athletic departments across the country since they have a hard time funding cheer teams already. If cheer was recognized as a sport athletic departments would need to provide even more funding to cheer teams.
Last year Reno Elite Teal was competing at the highest level in the oldest age group. The competitors in this division had a lot more experience, but Teal had worked their tails off and were prepared to hold their own.
Kass and the other athletes of Teal practiced three days a week, two hours each night. She went to school during the day and wouldn’t get home from practice until around 10 pm. During water breaks the athletes usually flip open their textbooks and find a quiet spot in the gym to study and complete homework assignments before practice started again.
“I try to get as much homework done as I can at school and during breaks at cheer, and if I can’t finish, then I stay up pretty late to get it done,” said Kass.
Some people say Kass is crazy for doing both high school and competition cheer. There are many high schoolers who can’t manage their time well enough to be on just one team.
Kass not only sacrifices much of her time for cheer, she also sacrifices her body. According to the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, cheer accounts for about 65% of all catastrophic injuries among high school girls and about 70.8% in college girls. While Kass has not experienced a catastrophic injury, she has pulled her hip flexor, sprained her ankle over ten times and once while she was basing, her flier’s chin split open the skin above her eye which required six stitches. These injuries occurred during competition cheer.
When Kass first started cheerleading she wanted to continue cheer at her dream school San Diego State University, but now she is unsure because the stunting and tumbling required in cheer is so hard on her body.
“My passion is cheer,” Kass said. “I don’t know where I would be without it, it keeps me busy and out of trouble.”
Kass does high school cheer for the experience. She loves being on the sideline for the McQueen High School football games. While competition cheer provides her with the intensity and adrenaline her competitive spirit craves.
During the 2014 season Reno Elite Teal was a co-ed team made of 14 girls and two boys, John Herrera and Nick Hansen. Only about 4% of cheerleaders at the high school and college level are male. Nick Hansen, 16, has been involved in competitive cheer for three years.
“My favorite part of cheer is being able to flip during my tumbling passes,” Hansen said. “I also like the sense of community I feel with my team.”
Hansen spends a minimum of seven hours a week at the Reno Elite gym, but that can easily turn into ten or twelve hours. This does not include when Hansen practices his tumbling on his own which he said is all the time.
Some people make gay jokes, but Hansen doesn’t take these seriously or get angry. He feels it’s just an easy joke to make because of the male cheerleader stereotype.
The 2014 season was Hansen’s first year at Reno Elite. Competition cheer has been a fun experience for him.
“Reno Elite, you may now take the floor,” the announcer said.
Reno Elite Teal runs onto the 42 by 54-foot mat. Kass takes her spot, fixes her shorts and tightens her bow. She clenches her fists and takes one more deep breath. The cameras from ESPN focus in on the team, and the noise from the crowd rings in her ears.
“I hate losing more than anything,” Kass said. “If I drop a stunt or mess up during a competition I leave the floor in tears.”
“Reno Elite, your music is on,” the announcer said.
Kass loves to perform. The adrenaline she gets during routines is addicting. Even when she starts getting tired and feels as if her lungs might collapse she finds just a little more energy to lift her flier or complete her tumbling pass. For two minutes and 30 seconds nothing else matters but cheer.
The routine finished and Kass was not happy. Teal bobbled one of their stunts which was an automatic deduction. She was concerned where the team would place. Teal was not expecting to win their division because the other teams had a lot more experience, but they did want to show they were contenders at this level and that they could hang with the best.
When it was time for the results to be announced Reno Elite Teal sat huddled together in a tight circle on the cheer mat. The other 66 teams they had just competed against did the same. Kass squeezed the hands of her teammates tight and they exchanged comforting glances as they waited. The tension she felt backstage before the performance returned and her heartbeat accelerated.
Despite the bobbled stunt, Reno Elite Teal placed 19th in the small senior co-ed level five division. This was a great accomplishment since it was their first time at worlds. Kass was not happy with the way the team performed but she was very proud of how the team placed. They did not get to go on to compete days two and three but still enjoyed the rest of their time in Orlando watching the top placing teams compete for the world championship.
Hansen is on the level five team again this upcoming season, and said they are looking really strong.
“We have cool stunts, tumbling, and dancing,” Hansen said. “I’m way more optimistic going into this season than last, and I was pretty happy with how we looked last year so that’s saying plenty I think.”
This year Kass is on Reno Elite Black which is a senior all-girl level four team. A new rule at the Reno Elite gym prevented her from being on the level five team and a high school cheer team at the same time.
“Being on a level five team and a high school team is way too stressful,” Kass said. “I’m looking forward to less stress this year.”
Although Kass will not be competing at the highest level this year she wants to challenge herself and improve her skills to become even better.