Watching a Fairfield University cheerleading practice is not for the faint of heart. There are girls flying through the air (and sometimes falling), and doing other crazy feats of athleticism. But it is also pretty magical. When spectators are sitting watching the halftime show at a basketball game, it is easy to forget about how much hard work goes into choreographing and executing the routine.
To the layperson, cheer doesn’t seem to be that much different from any other team on campus. They spend about 12 to 15 hours a week doing things related to cheer, whether that be at practice, at games or doing something within the community. This can vary from week to week, depending on the amount of games that they have to perform at, or if they have a competition to prepare for. The team cheers at every home basketball game, as well as a few select away games throughout the season. This is what takes up the majority of their time, and is also what they are most known for around campus. They cheer on the sidelines and do a halftime performance each game. The team also cheers at Red Sea Madness, the basketball season’s annual pep rally which precedes each season-opener.
Now, the cheer team is not only there for basketball games to stand on the sidelines and perform at halftime. While that is a large part of what they do, they also have a whole different aspect of commitment within their program. This would be participation in competitions.
“What we do at competitions is a lot more intense. We don’t have anyone there we are specifically cheering for… it’s a much more competitive environment,” said co-captain Julia Abbatello ‘21.
The team travels across the East Coast to compete against other collegiate teams. This shift to being a competitive team has been a change implemented over the last few years, as the program took a break from competing for a few years. Now, the team is shifting into a new period of working toward growing their competitive repertoire. This involves even more practice and work, and adds another layer to what the team already does.
Head Coach Taylor Wilkes said, “What you see at games is not it…These girls are working tirelessly to develop their skills and perform at college level competitions.” The routine that they put forward in competitions is a longer version of the performances that they give at the basketball games.
“We only have two and a half minutes to leave everything we have on the mat,” said Meghan Sweeney ‘23.
The program is continuing to work to compete against a broader range of teams and move into more elite competitions. Wilkes said, “Their goal is to compete at the National Collegiate Athletic Association next year, which is the pinnacle of college cheerleading.”
When asked about what made Fairfield Cheer so special, both the coach and the team gave a very similar answer: the amount of teamwork that cheerleading requires. “One of the hardest parts [of cheer] is the fact that it is such a team sport. Everyone has to be 100 percent in for every practice, every game and every run through or else it wont work,” said Taylor Lewis ‘22.
The team is divided into stunt groups, who work together all season as one cohesive unit in order to pull off the feats of gymnastics that the girls show at both competitions and at basketball games. When the girls get put into stunt groups, it makes it so all of the girls become essential to the routine.
“We don’t have a huge bench to pull from, and it takes months for synergy to form within stunt groups,” added Wilkes. Everyone has an important role on the team and that is one of the things that sets it apart from other sports, and something that adds to the amount of teamwork and cooperation needed.
The girls also talked about the life lessons that they have taken away from cheerleading. “I think it is really empowering as a woman to be part of a team like cheerleading. I always feel so loved and supported when I am around all these girls,” said Marytherese Ryan ‘22. They talked about the amount of support and cohesion that the team has together, something that was echoed by their coach. “This team in particular has so much comadrie and everyone is always rooting for everyone else… It warms my heart,” said Wilkes.
This program is unique compared to the other teams on campus based on the wide array of things that they do from games to competitions. Cheer is just as athletically intense and competitive as the other sport teams at Fairfield, just in its own way.