By LARRY VAUGHT
Kelsey LaCroix often watched Kentucky basketball games on TV while growing up in Illinois. However, it was not the players or coaches she was watching.
“Every time I turned on a UK basketball game, I would look for the cheerleaders,” said LaCroix. “I rarely watched the game, just the cheerleaders.”
Her dream was to make the Kentucky cheerleading squad. Her cheer coach had coached former UK cheerleader Ashley Vanetti — you might remember her for having a photo become a national hit with her fiancee, former UK cheerleader Adam Sunderhaus, holding her in his palm while she showed off her engagement ring — and LaCroix thought it was amazing what the UK cheerleaders could do.
“They just perform at an amazing level and I saw UK as the best place for me. They have a good nursing school, great cheer program. I wanted to go to the best, so Kentucky fit me perfectly,” LaCroix said.
It’s worked out perfectly, too. The senior just helped UK win a third straight national title — 23rd overall and fourth in the last five years.
Not bad considering she worried that she would not even make the squad after being on an all-girls team at St. Charles (Ill.) North High School for two years and even longer with ICE Allstars, her primary cheer team.
She knew co-ed cheering was a lot different and was nervous about even going to the tryout at UK.
“I didn’t know if I wanted to try out. I did not want to be embarrassed,” she said. “For six months before tryouts I did privates lessons for co-ed stunting. So I thought, let’s give it a shot. If I was going to cheer anywhere, I wanted it to be at Kentucky. Thank God I did make it.”
Once she did, she knew she was part of the “gold standard” of cheerleading because the Cats are expected to win almost every year – and usually do.
“We strive for perfection,” she said. “(Cheer coach) Jomo (Thompson) made it clear that just because you made the squad you had not won a national title. He let us know that was just the starting point and we had to put in the work … and we do every year. He always pushes us more and more.”
That’s because other teams always aim for Kentucky. Whatever Kentucky cheer does, others copy. That forces UK to always work in new, more difficult stunts and routines.
The team recently competed at Orlando at the Universal Cheerleaders Association Division IA Championship and won for the fourth time in five years. The team had a slight mistake in the first round but was still ahead going into the final on Sunday — something Thompson didn’t tell the team.
“The second day is the one that really matters. You have one chance to make it count,” LaCroix said. “It’s stressful and has a lot of pressure. You can’t mess up or it might cost your team a championship. Just knowing that makes it really difficult but the minute we got done, I knew we had hit it. At that point for me, it didn’t matter what place because I knew I had hit my routine and done what I had to do.”
However, never think this is not a sport or does not take a physical toll on cheerleaders.
LaCroix tore her anterior cruciate ligament in her knee her freshman year at UK and needed almost 10 months to recover. Other injuries have included a sprain wrist, sprained ankles, sprained hand, broken fingers and concussions.
“Thank goodness I’ve had a lot of good trainers,” she laughed and said. “But it is very physical. The beginning of the season is not bad. We practice 3-4 times a week and have games. The most physically draining is national season. Instead of a Christmas break, we have two-a-day (practices) for about two weeks. You get beat up. I am 21 but I feel old some days.
“I am on top (of the formation for a lot of the stunts) and get thrown around like crazy. We are falling from the top to the bottom. When a girl falls and hits a guy’s shoulder, it hurts. But even when I came back from the torn ACL, it was like I never stopped. You just know you have to keep going.”
LaCroix says social media has helped create a new admiration for what Kentucky cheer does and has accomplished. It has also helped show others that cheerleading is a sport — one reason UK will represent the United States as the Olympics in South Korea next month in an exhibition competition.
“People now know more about the intensity we have and the talent it takes to be a cheerleader,” LaCroix, who started as a gymnast before switching to cheerleading, said. “We respect all the athletes on campus and cheer for a lot of them. Sometimes when we do cheer, you feel like you might not be getting as much respect (from fans) as they do. But then fans see our national routine where we are flipping and getting thrown in the air and they really like it.
“I love soccer and football, but I love my sport, too. I think what we do is amazing at times. I don’t know how the guys throw us (in the air). I will never understand it, but I love that they can do it.”
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