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The Fresno State cheer team practicing outside the South Gym on campus, Sept. 20, 2017. The team is practicing their stunts as they prepare for game days and events. (Daniel Avalos/ The Collegian)

Blood, sweat and cheers

The Fresno State Cheer team is not just a pile of pompoms, skirts and eyelashes, but a hardworking, dedicated and committed team, just like other student-athletes.

Right now, the cheer team is plugging in new teammates as they improve and prepare for this season’s games, events and competitions.

At the top of the pyramid, head coach Emmi Jennings is calling the shots. Right under her are assistant coaches and alumni Jocelyn Estrada and Luis Sepulveda.

Coaching for six seasons, Jennings looks for cheerleaders who have heart, dedication and can commit to the team.

“It is mind over matter, how hard you want to work to get that certain skill,” Jennings said. “How much you train.”

Incoming freshman Emily Taylor knows the cost and benefits of hard work.

“I hadn’t done a lot of collegiate tumbling or stunting, but my coach actually partnered me with our best stunter, Adam [Nunez],” Taylor said. “So, he has really pushed me, and I’ve had to meet his level in order for our stunts to even hit.”

Along with heart, cheerleaders must also be able to meet the minimum requirements for stunting and tumbling: a standing back-handspring and being able to be a base, flyer or back spot.

Once on the team, cheerleaders commit to workout days, practices and event appearances.

“We have to do a minimum of five appearances, so we get our attendance taken,” Taylor said. “We go to football dinners, Greek festivals and a lot of community appearances.”

On top of that, cheerleaders enhance the spirit at sporting events such as basketball, volleyball and football games. Soon, the wrestling and water polo teams will be added to the list.

“It’s a pretty hard-core schedule,” Jennings said. “We do practice up to [four days] a week in the afternoons, and then we have workouts at 5:30 in the morning [in preparation for those games].”

During these practices and workouts, the team is doing body-weight exercises, cardio, tumbling passes and stunts.

“We constantly have to be in shape,” said Julie Wong, a senior flyer. “We all work out together to make sure we have enough muscle to do the things we do. Because tumbling, lifting people and throwing them takes a lot of muscle.”

Although training prepares cheerleaders for their performances and keeps them looking sharp, it also takes a toll on one’s body.

“It’s super-exhausting,” Nunez said. “I spend most of my days sore because we’re putting our bodies in positions that normally shouldn’t bend.”

These positions include a heel-stretch full-down, a roundoff back-handspring, a running back-handspring tuck, a standing tuck and other complicated cheerleading tricks.

“The physical pain we’re putting [our] body through with tumbling and flipping … we’re punching off concrete, basketball courts, with our toes and our feet, and if you have one wrong landing you’re going to feel it for a while,” Nunez said.

Not only do the cheerleaders put their bodies in positions that are abnormal, they put their bodies on the line for an audience’s entertainment.

“[Injuries] are pretty common. Especially in tumbling, but also in stunts because you’re relying on other people to do their job,” Wong said. “Injuries can happen, and I’ve been a part of that before.”

Just last week, after recovering from a torn ACL, Wong landed herself in the emergency room after being dropped from a basket-toss.

During that, another injury occurred when Wong stomped on another base, and he ended up with a concussion.

“I’ve broken a couple of fingers myself. I broke my nose from a flyer before, so I mean you have to expect that,” Nunez said. “Especially the way we’re putting our body in the air. Whether [we’re] a flyer, tumbler, base, you’re putting your body out there.”

Although cheerleading could lead to injuries, cheerleaders believe it is worth it if it means they can finally stick those difficult landings or stunts, and do it as a team.

With rigorous practices, countless appearances and workouts, the cheer team continues to challenge those who think what they are doing is not sportsworthy.

“A misconception about cheerleaders is people put on a uniform and they look cute in front of the game,” Nunez said. “It’s actually a lot of hard work.”

Try it, Wong said.

“Try to do what we do, throwing people, catching them, holding them,” Wong said. “You have to have perfect grips. It’s not just I’m gonna throw someone and let her fall to the ground because you have a person’s human life in your hands. That’s my advice. If you think it’s not a sport, come and try it. Go for it.”

Other than challenging others to perform at its level, the cheer team only has one end goal.

“…To be better than the previous year,” Jennings said.

In April, the cheer team traveled to Daytona, Florida to compete in the National Cheer Association and National Dance Association Collegiate National Championships.

According to the team’s Facebook page, it has been 17 years since Fresno State has competed at that level.

Placing seventh in Large Co-ed Cheer Division 1A, the cheer team looks to go back to Florida for a higher placing.

For now, one can catch the cheerleaders on the sidelines entertaining the crowds locally.

“We’re here for the Red Wave. We’re the face of Fresno State. We go up to the fans, especially the little girls. They love us, and we just bring the spirit to the Red Wave, help fans get more involved, get more on their feet,” Jennings said.