The cheerleaders file into the gym, decked out in pink warm-up shirts. Their ages range from 15 to 45, but the level of excitement is the same for all. Their theme this year is "Smile" and it couldn't be more appropriate.
"Each member has many difficulties and health issues," says young coach Connor Dafler, "but every Wednesday they're so excited to be here for practice and they're so happy."
Connor, her mom, and her sister have coached and supported the special team since 2004. Today, at age 18, Connor is the main coach and choreographer. "The special team has taught me so much. I've grown really close to the girls and they've clung to me in a way. I look forward to practice every week."
From an athletic family, Connor began cheering as an eight-year-old. "School cheerleading has a silly mentality attached. But All Stars requires a lot of physical and mental strength. Competitions are tough. A lot of people think cheerleading is rah, rah, rah, but it's blood, sweat, and tears, and it's risky. People can break their necks and I can't tell you how many bloody noses and black eyes I've experienced."
A true sport, All Stars cheerleading requires cardio and physical strength. Athletes must strengthen their arms, legs, abs, and core balance. The flexibility required is similar to gymnastics. Throughout her career, Connor traveled with her high school team around the southeast, placing first and second in the nation. "It boosted my confidence a lot. You're dependent on your teammates. Where that is true with all sports, cheering gives you only a few minutes to do your performance with your teammates. You have to trust. Even if there's a girl on your team you don't like, you have to suck it up and learn to love them as your teammate."
Connor has dedicated her life to helping others. Starting classes at the University of South Carolina this fall, Connor plans on majoring in exercise science. "I want to be a personal trainer and dietician, especially to help people who struggle with obesity. I really got into my health and eating in high school. Some people in my family have struggled with their diets, and I think it would be cool to help someone get on the right track, to where they want to be. I never want to be hypocritical, so if I'm coaching someone on strength or helping someone eat better, I think I need to do the same."
As a coach, Connor helps each member of the special team work through a variety of health issues. Choreographing the routines, she creates performances that enable each member to shine. "I think that with all they have to go through, if they're still happy, I know I can be happy no matter what I'm going through. It's so encouraging to me. To the members of the special team, everything's possible. So I wonder why sometimes I doubt myself or think things are so bad in my life. Their parents say I've helped them so much. But they don't realize how it affects me. It's so rewarding. They've taught me to live in every moment." Connor smiles and watches the team members begin their warm-ups. "I think helping others is a huge esteem and confidence builder in itself. I feel that if I'm doing something to help someone else and help them become happier, it naturally makes me feel better. I want to be remembered as making a change in someone's life. And hopefully through coaching the special team I can make a positive change in people's lives."
Connor's dream: "I've always dreamed of owning my own cheerleading gym, so that might be in the cards too."
Hardest part about cheerleading: "I've always struggled with mental blocks. I can be completely prepared for something physically, but if I'm afraid, I'm not going to do it. The best thing when I have a mental block is to just keep doing it and get through it."
Health advice: "If you simply limit food to moderation, it totally helps. A simple walk down the street will help, or walk to the mailbox, then walk a little farther. Start out small and challenge yourself."