They'll defy every expectation you have about what it means to be a cheerleader.

By Lauren Mazzo
February 05, 2020
Jay Helms/JB Imaginative

If you've been sucked into the flying-human vortex of Netflix's Cheer docuseries, you've likely come to realize that modern-day cheerleading is a serious (albeit somewhat crazy) sport. For the uninitiated, watch ASAP; this real-life documentary-style series is far from the cool-girl stereotypes and curated-drama reality shows you may associate with the sport. You'll be wowed by their high-flying stunts, stunned by their dedication, and warmed by the way this sport has given meaning to some of the athletes' lives.

But cheerleaders far from a college in small-town Texas are making their mark on the world, too—and they're doing it at 30, 40, even 50 years old.

Meet these five members of Cheer New York, an adult charitable cheerleading team with nearly 100 athletes supporting LGBTQ+ nonprofits in New York City. The organization is part of a larger network of similar teams, called the Pride Cheerleading Association, raising money in major cities across the country. Cheer New York welcomes anyone over the age of 21 to try out—no prior cheer experience necessary—and join the team performing stunts, tumbling, jumps, basket tosses, cheers, and dances.

They don't cheer at football or basketball games or spend all their time practicing for a competition; instead, they cheer at LGBTQ-community events (including the New York City's Pride March and the NYC AIDS Walk), other walks and races (such as the Brooklyn Half Marathon and the Walk for Hearing), making TV appearances (on shows like Worst Cooks In America and Total Bellas), and performing at corporate events (like Shape's Women Run the World summit in New York City)—and donate money they earn back to local charity. All this, in addition to living very "regular" lives working in finance, law, education, medicine, etc. and some of them having young cheerleader children of their own.

Read on to meet some of the outstanding members of the team and hear how they found cheerleading at various stages of life, what the team and sport mean to them now, and what it's like to give back to such an important community in New York City.

Andy Buxton

Quinn, Emergency Medicine Doctor

Age: 35 Member since: 2016

How she found cheer: I grew up competing in gymnastics through high school and started cheerleading in my freshman year of college. I cheered for all 4 years, took a 10-year hiatus, and ultimately joined Cheer New York in the fall of 2016. I missed the athletic challenge of cheerleading but, more importantly, I wanted to be part of a team with members from different backgrounds but that worked towards a collective goal. The fact that Cheer New York was a charitable organization was the icing on the cake.

How she juggles work and cheer: It can be tiring, but it's so worth it! On the surface, emergency medicine and cheerleading may seem totally different but I love the fast-paced, action-packed, and ever-evolving nature of both activities. They both require a full commitment to teamwork and no one individual is more valuable than another. As an ER doctor, I can't take care of patients without effective communication between myself and the nurses, techs, and administrative staff. As a cheerleader, there is no way I could fly through the air without the support of fully committed bases, back spots, and coaches. Both have made me a better teammate and given me a new level of humility.

Navigating breast cancer as an athlete: When I was 32 years old, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Cheerleading requires detailed body awareness and I believe that my training helped me realize that I hadn't been feeling quite right in the months leading up to my diagnosis. It's certainly been challenging, but I've found unconditional support from my teammates—we're truly a family and they prove that time and time again. They're always there to accompany me to doctor’s appointments or send meals to my apartment. They remind me how physically and emotionally strong I am even when I am scared. And they give the best hugs!

(Related: How Exercise Helped These Women Reclaim Their Bodies After Cancer)

Andy-Buxton

Clare, Business Manager & Mom of 3

Age: 50 Member since: 2016

How she found cheer: I started taking dancing and gymnastics when I was two years old, then segued into rhythmic gymnastics at the age of 9, becoming Texas State Champion on my 14th birthday. In college, I was captain of the cheerleading squad at Columbia University, which was my first time cheering. When I tried out for Cheer New York in 2016, I hadn’t cheered or danced (except for a brief stint as a flier on a parents’ team at my girls’ gym) in 24 years. If anyone had told me ten (or 20!) years ago that I would be a member of a high-level cheer team, performing at events all over New York City and competing in Paris at the Gay Games [a global LGBTQ+ sports competition], I would have laughed until I cried. That said, for anyone who has ever performed or competed on a sports team, you know what a hole is left in your life when it’s over. My first practice on CNY brought with it such a sense of coming home, a feeling of returning to something that I thought was lost forever. And after my first performance? I couldn’t even believe how lucky I felt to be a part of this amazing group. I’ve never lost that feeling.

On cheerleading and motherhood: My three daughters were 18, 16, and 14 when I joined the team. Although all three were former all-star [club] cheerleaders themselves, I don’t think that they had any concept of the high-performance level or the time commitment that would be required on CNY. As they started to see the amazing things that we were doing and met some of my teammates (and as they got a bit older and went to college!), they really started to realize what a very cool thing this is to do. People ask me all the time if I’m “the mom” of the team. Nothing could be further from the truth. Somehow, all of these teammates who could biologically be my children have become my peers. We’ve celebrated birthdays and engagements, cried through breakups and family deaths, and traveled the world together. I’m an only child, and all of my family lives in Canada. It's an amazing and unexpected gift to have nearly 100 people who have my back, who encourage me, and who make me feel so loved.

On being the oldest female member: What I get back from charitable cheerleading is so very much more than I put in. I’ve gained an enormous amount of confidence. I’ve found the supportive extended family that I’ve been searching for all of my life, and I have more strength and agility than I did when I was half this age. I’m so proud of the work that we do, and the people that we help, both through the money we raise and through the joy and positivity that we bring to events. At the end of the day, I love telling fans of our team that I’m 50. There are 13 teams nationwide in the Pride Cheerleading Association, and I’m the oldest female member. I hope that this inspires other women to keep doing what they love, no matter how far-fetched their dreams might seem.

(Related: This 73-Year-Old Fitness Fanatic Is Defying Expectations On Every Level)

Jay Helms/ JB Imaginative

Teresita, Not-for-Profit Lawyer

Age: 47 Member since: 2018

How she found cheer: I've always been into sports—I grew up running track and playing basketball, tennis—but I never saw myself as a cheerleader. In college, I wasn't playing any sports, but I still trained like an athlete, lifting weights and running. When I moved to New York City for law school, I saw a bodybuilding competition for the first time and decided to try. For 12 years, that's what I did; I set a goal of competing at the Olympia [one of the most notable competitions in bodybuilding], which I achieved in 2015. At that point, I was ready to be done with it. I wanted to devote myself to other things and get back into sports, which I couldn't do while bodybuilding. One of the social workers at my firm is on Cheer New York and she was telling me about the team, showing me pictures of the stunts...but it wasn't until she told me about the charity aspect and organization as a whole that I decided I wanted to try out. After going to the practices and learning the sport, I've come to absolutely love it.

(Related: Cheerleading Could Become an Olympic Sport)

From fitness competitor to charity cheerleader: I love to learn new things, I'm always hard on myself, and try to be the best at everything—but learning to cheer has given me a newfound respect for cheerleaders. It's an amazing sport and the level of training that's required is so much more than what I experienced as a bodybuilder and fitness competitor. Because yes, you need muscular strength, but you also need endurance and flexibility. When I started stunting, I was flabbergasted—it's so challenging.

The two are so different in other ways as well: In fitness competitions, it's cutthroat, and there's no trusting other people—you're out there all alone, and the whole thing is based on the impression you make for 10 seconds vs. your skill or overall wellbeing. Cheerleading is all about the team, about taking care of your body and your teammates. It's about trust and working together—because if not, everything falls apart.

Balancing a lawyer's life with charity cheerleading: I work for the Children's Law Center, which is a not-for-profit that represents children in all sorts of situations. A lot of people in my industry don't know anything about bodybuilding or cheerleading. Some people will then look up Cheer New York, and it's usually a shock—they're like you do that? I guess it's partially because of my age and partially because of my profession. A lot of people see a lawyer and they don't see a happy person, they see a person that's just out for money person and that doesn't really give back. So when they see what I do, it's like, "wow, like you're not like a regular lawyer." And the team is a serious commitment. Of course, there are days when I have to rush from court to make it to practice and it can be hectic, but it's so worth it. Not only is it an outlet, but it's new friends and it's giving back to the community and it's also the aspect of working under a team; when other people expect things of you, it keeps you grounded.

Jay Helms/JB Imaginative

Brianna, Elementary Assistant Principal

Age: 29 Member since: 2017

How she found cheer: Freshman year of high school, I joined varsity gymnastics and then, because I could tumble, I was recruited to join the cheer team—I fell in love with the sport immediately! I ended up cheering throughout high school and college for my school teams as well as for multiple all-star teams. During my senior year of college, I became an instructor for the National Cheerleaders Association and traveled along the east coast teaching camps and clinics. After college, I coached cheerleading for several years but never thought I would be able to cheer again myself. I joined Cheer New York because I missed cheerleading and wanted to give back to the community.

The evolution of cheerleading in her life: Cheerleading was the center of my life for many years. As an adult, I have other priorities, but I'm so grateful I can still make time for it. As an educator, I feel especially motivated by the number of children and young people who come to our events. I love that our team's diversity can inspire them to live their dreams and be themselves. In the past, I cheered for my school, my team, and to win competitions. Now, I cheer for our mission and for anyone who needs our spirit and encouragement, and it's even more fulfilling.

Leading off the mat: Cheerleading helped me grow into the leader I am today. I learned teamwork and the importance of collaboration, which I use in my job every day. As an assistant principal, I need to work with my teachers and fellow administrators to ensure we're supporting our students. Cheerleading has also given me a zap of energy and spirit that I bring to my school; I greet our students each morning with a big smile and literally cheer for them when they reach a goal. The joy I emulate helps to create positive energy in our school and has contributed to my success as a teacher for many years and now an administrator.

Ally Buxton

Malaea, Creative/Art Director

Age: 29 Member since: 2013

How she found cheer: I’ve been involved with cheerleading for over a decade. I first tried out for my high school squad as a junior and fell in love with the sport. This carried over to a couple of years in college and then I joined Cheer New York in 2013. I love the charity aspect of the team and being involved in something bigger than myself. In the six years I’ve been on the team, we’ve donated more than $100,000 to various LGBTQ+ charities in NYC.

The mental and physical demands of the sport: Some people still associate cheerleading solely with pom-poms and sideline cheering, but the sport has evolved significantly in the last 10 years. It's shocking how much stamina it takes to make it through a two-minute routine or a parade. comprised of non-stop stunting, tumbling, jumping, dancing, and cheering. You have to be fit both mentally and physically to make it through, to retain all the counts and timing of everything you're doing and to work collaboratively with your teammates to pull it all off. Even if you mess up, you need to keep going so you don't throw off your teammates.

(Related: Try These Cheerleading-Inspired Abs Moves)

On the team mentality: People’s lives are on the line with some of the moves we perform, so it requires a substantial level of focus. Trust is an essential element required for basket tosses (the aerial tricks where a flyer gets thrown into the air and immediately comes back down). When your teammates are throwing you 20+ feet into the air, you need to have faith that they’ll catch you no matter what happens. The trust goes both ways, though; the bases are counting on the flyer to stay as tight as possible since it’s much easier to catch a controlled body than flailing limbs falling from the sky. While in the air, body awareness and having a tight core is essential to hitting the tricks at the right time to keep everyone involved as safe as possible.

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