Life in Cal State Stanislaus – Caitlin Carrion on Competitive Cheer for Warriors, Gaels and Mustangs
Over the past decade Dublin has developed a strong cheer program from middle school through high school, with the program growing dramatically at Fallon Middle School, Wells Middle School and Dublin High School. For our next Life in College Series article we spoke with Caitlin Carrion, a freshman at Cal State Stanislaus where she is a member of the Warriors competitive cheer team.
OneDublin.org: What led to you getting interested in competitive cheerleading?
Caitlin Carrion: “I first got involved in dance when I was five and gymnastics when I was seven, and then cheerleading at Fallon. When I first got involved in cheer I thought you just shook the pom-poms and cheered from the sidelines. I had no idea there were competitions for cheer. I was confused when Coach Kristine Cousins told me she wanted me on her competition team for Fallon Middle School. I wondered ‘why are we competing? what are we competing for?’
“Before starting cheer I believed all the stereotypes – that cheerleaders are not very smart and are mean, and I’ve found the reality to be completely the opposite. Competitive cheer is one of the most team-oriented sports. If one person isn’t there the entire pyramid can’t go up. It’s as much a mental as it is a physical sport. If you are about to perform a stunt and one team member is afraid to do it, lots of people can get hurt.
“You have to be there full force or the whole team is affected.”
OneDublin.org: You mentioned that competitive cheerleading is a sport – why do you say that?
Carrion: “There is sideline cheer and competition cheer. I don’t believe that sideline cheer is a sport – you are cheering on your team and performing simple stunts – but you aren’t competing. Competitive or all-star cheer, however, involves high-risk routines with gymnastics and stunts in competition against other teams. You are putting yourself at risk and constantly pushing the envelope. To be competitive you have to think up new stunts and routines every year. I believe competitive cheer is one of the most mentally challenging sports.”
OneDublin.org: Describe the first time when you were on a competitive cheer team that really pushed the envelope during a competition, and what that felt like.
Carrion: “I remember a time while at Fallon Middle School that made me know I’d want to do cheer for a long time. It was the first year we won, back in 2008 or 2009, we were undefeated including winning our division and winning grand champion. I remember crying and feeling there were no troubles in the world. It was the greatest feeling because I had worked so hard for everything and it all payed off in such a great way, with your team by your side. Even if we hadn’t won it would have been rewarding because I was with my team.”
OneDublin.org: Describe the training that happens leading up to a competition.
Carrion: “At Dublin High School we practiced around three times per week, usually Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Closer to competition we’d also have Saturday practices. There were a couple 6-hour choreography day practices during high school. Because we had separate competition and cheer teams I only had to worry about competitive cheer.
“In college you cheer for both the sideline and competitive cheer teams. For sideline, that means cheering for all the sports. In college I have practice Monday and Wednesday nights, Tuesday and Thursday morning at 7am, usually a game on Friday, and sometimes practices on Saturday and Sunday. During a typical week I have cheer every single day. And it’s not just cheer routines for the different sports but also preparing routines for charity events. Cheer in college is a major commitment and it was a shock at first. We also had our winter break cut short to two weeks and then upon returning we had three straight weeks of practice every day for 4-6 hours. It was really really hard and at the end of each day I’d just go back to my dorm and sleep, but I ended up much stronger. You also truly bond with your team after spending so much time together.”
OneDublin.org: How did you end up choosing Cal State Stanislaus?
Carrion: “I had never heard of Stanislaus before I came here and I suspect that’s the same for many people. I met the head coach and he said the cheer program was really good. But you shouldn’t choose a school just for the cheer program or the sport so I took a closer look. Stanislaus is a smaller school, which I wanted, which means smaller classes. I’m majoring in history because I want to be a history teacher, and Stanislaus has a great teacher credentialing program.
“Stanislaus is also not too far away from home – only about 90 minutes from Dublin. I’m the kind of person that if there’s an emergency I want to see my family. Stanislaus ended up being perfect for me. I’m enjoying Greek life, which has helped me meet a lot of people, and it’s in the middle of a very nice area which isn’t true of all colleges, so I feel very safe.”
OneDublin.org: How are you balancing the incredibly intense time commitment of cheer with academics?
Carrion: “Barely! I’m Stanislaus State Cheer, All-Star Cheer on the side, I’m involved in my sorority, I have a job and I have classes. So far I’ve managed to maintain a 3.4 GPA; if I can do it, anyone can do it! You just have to be dedicated. I could be out partying, but I’ve chosen where to dedicate my time. It’s sacrifice and dedication.”
OneDublin.org: What is it like competing at the college level?
Carrion: “In college cheer camps everyone is so supportive of each other whereas in high school everyone is so focused on themselves. In college we cheer on other teams, we talk to each other, it’s a completely different atmosphere. It’s competitive but there is a shared love of the sport.”
OneDublin.org: The cheer stunts at the college level are insane. How as a team do you decide where to draw the line between amazing stunts and too much risk?
Carrion: “Hitting zero is very important in competitive cheer – that’s when you have no deductions. That is our goal – hitting zero. We will take out stunts and adjust our routines to make things cleaner and stronger. What’s the point of throwing up a stunt if you can’t make it look good? Having a stunt look good ties to the coach’s pride for the team. Pushing the envelope means: is the stunt hitting and does it look clean and can you stick the stunt during competition?
“The biggest thing I’ve learned in college-level stunting is you have to commit to a stunt because if you don’t people can get hurt.”
OneDublin.org: What is your role on the team?
Carrion: “I think of cheer teams as having three Bs: the beauties, the brains and the beast. The beauties are the fliers in the air that everyone sees, and no matter what happens, even if they are falling, they have to be smiling. I’m a main base, and the bases are the beast. The beast has to be strong and controlled to throw and catch the fliers. And the back spotters are the brains because they are the people that see the entire stunt. The brains can spot problems – for example one base is higher than another base or a flier isn’t squeezing – and call them out. The back spotters also catch the fliers head and neck. Then there are tumblers and dancers.”
OneDublin.org: In the middle of a complex routine are you just operating on muscle memory or are you aware of the moment?
Carrion: “It’s mostly muscle memory but it’s also running through the routine in my head while it’s happening. People don’t realize it but cheer competitors are so tired during the routines even though it’s only 2 minutes and 30 seconds, it’s solid cardio, weightlifting, dancing and gymnastics all rolled into one. You get so focused you forget to breath – I have to remind myself to breath during routines! If you are close to the athletes in a cheer competition you’ll hear teammates yelling out to each other with reminders of what to do next, the details of the routine.”
OneDublin.org: What advice do you have for students who are curious about competitive cheer, or parents who are concerned about cheer, what advice do you have?
Carrion: “For students considering continuing cheer into college my advice is don’t choose a school just because of its cheer program. Don’t do it. If I’d done that I’d be at a completely different school. If you get hurt and can’t continue competing then you’ll hate your school if cheer is the only reason you were there. Loving your school enhances your love of the sport. Look for a good cheer program at a school you want to attend and that can help you later on in life. Make sure you focus on the school first.
“For parents it’s just like football. Your child will get hurt – it will happen. A good coach makes a big difference, knowing the right technique to make the sport as safe as possible, and not pushing the team too far. I’ve had amazing coaches who know where to draw the line, who know the techniques. So look at the coaches and realize it’s a sport and you’re child will get hurt, and they’ll get tougher as a result.”