Being a cheerleader at East Carolina University is not just pom poms and pep rallies. It’s a group of hard working athletes that dedicate a lot of time and effort to giving support to other athletes and each other.
Head cheerleading coach Susie Glynn has been with the ECU cheerleading program for 18 years and with the new spotlight brought to collegiate cheer she is hopeful that her athletes will finally start gaining the recognition they deserve.
“They are hard working individuals,” Susie said. “It takes a lot of sacrifice personally for each individual to do this, so they give up a lot of time to be able to put in the practice here to be able to cheer them on and get them going and get the fans going.”
The responsibilities of the cheerleading team is not just limited to just coming to football and basketball games. While they are responsible for attending football, men’s and women’s basketball and some volleyball to bring out the best in both other athletes and the crowd, the team also goes to events throughout the Greenville community and the university as ambassadors for the Pirates.
In December, ECU cheer turns their focus slightly toward preparing for their own competitions. Coach Glynn combines 24 athletes from her both her co-ed and all girls team for a competition team. These athletes have practice that can be anywhere from three to six hours in addition to the three practices a week lasting around three hours and weight lifting.
Most of the competition practices consists of learning more complicated stunts, tumbling and pyramids than what is seen at games. They also have a lot of conditioning like two mile runs and repetition to make sure that each athlete is in top physical condition to perform the risky maneuvers required of the sport.
Cheerleading is not recognized nationally as an NCAA sport, which means that cheerleaders don’t get the same scholarships and benefits that many college athletes are offered. While the team does get some school funding to cover uniforms and occasional travel expenses, the athletes themselves rely on academic scholarships or other methods to pay for school.
“It's a slow change, but it’s more because people are becoming more educated about it,” Susie said. “You see that people are finally starting to see what we do across the board.”
This often means that cheerleaders are working one or more jobs in addition to the time commitment of being on the team and a full time student. Cheerleaders, like any other athlete, must meet the requirements of the school in order to participate. This includes keeping their GPA up and taking the minimum 12 hours required to be considered a full-time student.
While some schools across the country have started to make their cheerleading teams NCAA sports, it remains a difficult argument to make. With the team’s primary job being to support the other athletic teams at East Carolina, it makes it difficult for any cheerleading team to have enough collegiate level competitions against other schools.
“The difficulty with considering it a NCAA sport is when you define a sport it is not a matter of how hard they work or what athletic abilities are put into it, it's more of your competitiveness,” Susie said. “Meaning your competitiveness with other teams and cheerleading. It is hard to have a game like you do in a baseball or basketball or football. You have to have an “X” number of matches that you go up against and then from there you go to a championship.”
The biggest stage that these athletes get to compete on for themselves is in Daytona Beach, Florida. Every spring the National Cheerleading Association (NCA) holds the College Nationals. The Pirates have attended for the past six years. According to Susie, they have finished in the top-three almost every year, including last year where they finished second in the intermediate co-ed division.
These athletes spend a great deal of time with each other. Between practices, competitions and games they see each other almost daily. Seniors Bayleigh Glynn and Haywood Mckoy describe it as almost a sibling, family-like bond and while they sometimes fight it is key to have a great deal of trust in each other.
“In many aspects of it, it’s going to be hard to be successful if you’re not already treating each other like family and friends,” Mckoy said. “It’s really close the things that we are doing, that have risk to it, you kind of want to trust the person that is either under you or over you. That they are going to protect you as well as themselves.”
During most games many people overlook the cheerleaders. Besides halftime performances, they mostly keep to the sidelines and mingle with the crowd. However, not many really consider how much hard work and dedication that these athletes put in while not supporting other teams here at East Carolina.
More than anything the cheerleaders appreciate the fans. Mckay and Bayleigh credited a lot of motivation into what they do to Pirate Nation and the families that bring their kids to games. The cheerleaders don’t just feed the crowds energy, but they get energy from the crowd as well.
“We don’t do it for the teams, we do it because we love the crowd,” Bayleigh said. “We want to support them as much as we can, so for nationals and showcases and stuff it would be kind of cool if they came out and supported us. It would be cool to see more of that when we need cheering on.”
The NCA Collegiate National Championship will be held in Daytona Beach, Florida from April 8 through the 12. The ECU Cheerleading team can be seen on Thursday night at Minges where they will be supporting the men’s basketball team at 7 p.m.