From competition to COVID: Cheer team eager to get back on the mat

College cheerleaders spend their entire career dreaming of stepping onto the Nationals competition mat. 

From the moment they arrive in Daytona, Florida, until the final award is announced, cheerleaders stand united with their teammates, praying they will nail their routines and earn the coveted first-place trophy.

However, before they can put their uniforms on and tighten their cheer bows, cheerleaders must put their all into practices, giving blood and sweat to perfect their 2-minute and 30-second routines.

For seniors Amber Hamilton and Stephanie Fernandes, their dream of winning first place was cut short when the COVID-19 pandemic halted their practices and forced the co-ed team to withdraw from the spring 2020 competition. 

Looking back on their last practice before the pandemic struck, Hamilton said, “Our coaches weren’t really telling us anything about what was going on. We knew that we probably weren’t going to get to go [to Nationals], but a lot of other teams around the country were still going.”

Hamilton added she was “completely devastated” when she learned the University was not allowing the team to compete at Nationals. 

Fernandes and Hamilton were given no choice but to watch as their hard-earned moment – a moment they had worked toward since freshman year – slipped out of reach. 

Instead of attending the competition, the team was left in Framingham, forced to be onlookers rather than competitors. 

From August to April, the FSU cheerleaders train hard in the hope of earning an invitation to Nationals. 

From long practices in the Athletic Center gym to cheering at football games, the team has a tight bond with one another – a bond that no pandemic can take away. 

Hamilton said, “Even off the mat, we tend to push each other to keep our academic focus. On the mat, we definitely have a close bond. So, it [their bond] just helps us in every aspect of our lives.”

Fernandes added, “I want to do good [at competition] not only for myself, but for my teammates because I have a bond with them. I don’t want to let them down. Off the mat, it is the same thing. 

“We motivate each other. We would keep each other in-line and in-check so that we could be the best for ourselves and for each other. So, I think we kind of all just pushed each other to work hard and make things happen,” she added. 

This season, the team has fallen behind as the University has yet to assign practice time to them. 

While other fall sports have been allowed to hold socially distanced practices during the week, the cheerleading team has been left in the dark by the University. 

Hamilton said the team’s coaches reached out to the Athletic Department to get a practice slot.

A month later, the team is still waiting to receive paperwork required to hold practice. 

With time running out, both cheerleaders have their eyes set on attending the 2021 Nationals. 

This goal, however, is quickly slipping out of reach as the team must attend a National Cheerleaders Association (NCA) Camp and work with an official NCA trainer in order to earn an invitation to Nationals. 

Hamilton said, “It’s hard for us at Framingham to look on Instagram and see other cheerleading teams that are getting to practice right now. It just kind of feels like we’re falling behind.”

She added cheerleaders around the country are currently able to participate in the sport, but at a limited capacity. 

She said, “We haven’t met together as a team once, never mind go to [NCA] camp together. I do hope we get to go [to Nationals]. With all of our hard work last season, we are at a level where we could do half a season and still be competitive.” 

Fernandes said attending Nationals as seniors would “be a great way to go out, especially because we had such an upsetting exit to last season, after everything we kind of worked for.

“So, hopefully we get that chance, but we’ll just have to take it day by day,” she added.

As the two seniors anxiously wait to see if they will be allowed to practice and compete during their final collegiate season, they both reflect upon their past four years on the team. 

Hamilton said, “I do try to be a leader on this team – which I’m not normally very good at. I tend to sit back and let the group work things out. This is my fourth year on the mat and the coaches do look at me as a leader for the team.

“So, I’ve had to step up and learn that skill that I didn’t really have going into this. I am probably most proud of my growth in leadership skills through this experience,” she added. 

Hamilton, a Weymouth native and biology major, began all-star cheerleading when she was 8 years old.

She said, “I started because my best friend and my cousin started doing it. So then, I obviously was like, ‘I want to do what they’re doing,’ and my mother actually said no for six months until I finally persuaded her to let me do it.”

From then on, Hamilton stuck with the sport. 

Likewise, Fernandes, an international business major from Taunton, began cheerleading in middle school. 

She said, “I tried out for my middle school team and I didn’t make it. That kind of got me into all-star cheer because I really wanted to make the team.”

Now, Hamilton and Fernandes are only a few months away from graduating college and are looking forward to staying close to the sport. 

Fernandes said, “I definitely hope to incorporate cheerleading [into my future], whether that means opening a gym or maybe coaching – we’ll see what happens with that. 

“I’m definitely going to get my real estate license this upcoming spring and then hopefully start with that and kind of get my foot in the door for other business opportunities,” Fernandes added. 

After graduation, Hamilton said, “I want to go to a 16-month nursing program and turn my bachelor’s in science to a bachelor of science in nursing. … I definitely want to work in a hospital setting or a medical setting.”

She added, “I’m still an all-star cheerleader and I want to continue doing that team for at least a couple more years. I’m also coaching, so I want to keep coaching.” 

With the spring semester quickly approaching, Fernandes and Hamilton reflected upon the legacy they hope to leave behind for their underclassman teammates.

Fernandes said, “We really had this way of changing the team’s mindset. I think the legacy that is going to be left behind is a legacy of triumph. We overcame so much and it brought everyone together. I feel like that’s going to continue. I don’t think that’s going to be forgotten.”

She added, “I can’t believe how fast it went and how things have changed. … Everyone should definitely make the best of it while they can, and hopefully, everything with this virus will be going away soon.”

Hamilton said, “Don’t lose the fight. Framingham State has the skill level to win the national championship and every year, something so small sets us back. 

“I don’t want to see this team, once we’re gone, start heading downhill and not caring anymore, because we are such a talented program and everybody just needs to think of that,” she added. 

Hamilton said, “I definitely want to leave a legacy of fighting for absolutely everything you do because you only get four years and it goes by so fast. Looking back, now I’m like, ‘If only I had done this differently,’ and you don’t want to feel that way. 

“You want to put every ounce of your being into the four years you’re there. I hope people see that’s what I’ve done in my four years and I hope everybody in years to come puts that same fight in because we are a very good program.”