As Vanessa Andrade hurtled and tumbled across the mat during evening cheer practice, it was hard to imagine she couldn’t do the splits when her mother first drove the 14-year-old to tryouts.
Six years later, the incoming Mountain View freshman finished second in the nation in the World Series of Cheerleading’s individual series on May 18.
But her secret isn’t much of one at all.
“My coaches have always been really good, very helpful in getting me to progress,” Andrade said.
Those tutors — of the 14-time national champion cheerleading squad known as Pride All-Stars Cheer and Dance — are celebrating last week’s move to their brand-new facilities near Interstate 10 and Cortaro Road, just in time for next year’s team tryouts on Aug. 1.
Andrade numbered just one of 30 kids, from elementary to high school, who bounced over the studio’s 2,200-square-foot floor, buoyed by 2,600 springs, last Wednesday.
Though Pride All-Stars co-director and coach Rose Miranda called Andrade the school’s “Cinderella story,” she said such athletic transformations aren’t unusual. She explained that, like any other sport, positive change stems from hard work and focus.
How a 100-strong program, boasting two walls of banners and shelves sagging with trophies, can fly under the athletic radar was a slippery explanation, though.
“I don’t know,” Miranda shrugged. “We just focus on the kids, we don’t do a lot of advertising. We just go by word-of-mouth, and our kids do really well for themselves.”
Packing the school’s four cheer and three dance teams — plus classes — into their old swamp-cooled warehouse digs seemed like a sweaty proposition during summer practices.
“In the summertime we were in an oven, like a sauna, and in the wintertime, we were freezing,” Miranda said. “So for the kids to move into this new facility is much, much nicer for everyone.”
Seven years before settling in at their new address, the school started out across town as Oro Valley Pride, co-founded by Miranda, and her daughter Margaret Hathaway, then-cheer coaches for Oro Valley Dolphins youth football crew.
“We just felt that the focus was all on the football players,” Miranda said. “We wanted to do something that was focused more on cheer and dance — so we did.”
Miranda — a former Amphitheater High School cheerleader — wanted to offer girls the self-esteem, conditioning and escape from trouble that entertained her and Hathaway during their youth.
But that first leap involved some improvisation where practices were held. For four years, Pride’s athletes trained on a local church’s tile floor and headed outside to grass lawns for stunt rehearsals.
A team of seven competed in Anaheim, Calif., during the first go around. Last season, 70 kids represented the school in the competition.
Such growth reflects the leaps cheerleading made throughout the country in the last decade, even bounding onto ESPN2’s schedule.
Northward in Phoenix, more than 30 all star-level cheerleading teams compete for trophies, while the sport draws an even bigger following on the East Coast.
The governing body for top-caliber squads, the U.S. All Star Federation, claims 500 member gyms in its ranks, with 100 squads from 15 countries turning out for the 2007 World Championships.
As Pride coach Emily Zgliniec put it: “It used to be rah-rah for the boys, but now it’s rah-rah for us.”
It’s tricky to figure how many local girls — and boys — compete in cheer, said Lenny Byrd, who co-manages local spirit school Desert Cheer Athletics. Byrd painted Miranda’s estimate of 500 kids a touch high, placing his own guess closer to 300.
Byrd’s daughter trained as one of the original Oro Valley Pride cheerleaders, leading him and his wife to form a partnership with Miranda and Hathaway during 2002.
But philosophical differences over training and competitive goals caused the four to split into their current camps two years ago.
The schools managed to occupy the same space near La Cholla and Ruthrauff since — but when Pride’s new space beckoned, the schools completed their split.
“In the end, partnership meant something different to each of us,” Byrd said.
Desert Cheer’s numbers count around 80 kids. Byrd said many of those practice for the same reasons that cheerleading morphed into its own sport — like the interest to perform tricky stunts that wouldn’t be allowed along high school sidelines.
But while Desert Cheer prepares to field more competitive teams this year, Byrd stresses the school’s laid-back atmosphere and cooperation with University of Arizona cheerleaders.
“Our biggest goal is getting kids having enough fun so they’ll continue with the program,” Byrd said.
Not that Pride’s kids exuded the stone-faced airs of Soviet-bloc gymnasts in some spanking-new government facility, though.
As she cartwheeled toward her next trophy, Andrade said she enjoys passing her skills on to younger competitors — a gift she hopes might land her a college scholarship and coaching job one day.
“I just look forward to each practice, coming here and working with my teammates,” Andrade said. “This is my sport.”
|IF YOU GO
What: Pride All-Stars Cheer and Dance Studio grand opening, featuring games, cheer demonstrations, and raffle for a trip to Phoenix’s Wigwam Resort and Spa
Where: 7620 N. Hartman Lane, Ste. 132
When: 3 p.m., Saturday, July 19