Article and photos by nj.com – Written by Amy Kuperinsky
Lyric Generals smiles triumphantly as she stands tall on one leg, an oversized metallic bow in her hair. On the floor several feet below, her teammates hurriedly clutch her foot and ankle as she stretches her other leg up over her head. Supercharged dance music crashes through the speakers.
She can fall, but she won’t. When her muscled body ascends to the ceiling, she doesn’t flinch. She beams, staging an outright offense to gravity.
Perched atop her teammates, mouthing the words to the music, the 17-year-old may seem unbreakable.
Looking at her, you would never know that she used to struggle to make it up the stairs. That she was once banned from not only the monkey bars, but also the school playground.
For much of her life, the Mount Laurel teen has been coping with Gaucher’s disease (pronounced “go-shay”), a rare genetic “storage” disorder characterized by a lack of enzymes.
Each month she must undergo intravenous enzyme replacement therapy. The regimen is crucial, she says:
“If I don’t get the treatments, I could die.”
No sideline sport
Starting Thursday, the aerial stunts of Lyric, 17, and the 35 other Shooting Stars can be seen nationwide in “Nfinity Champions League 2”, a movie about cheerleading that has nothing to do with pompoms and football, and everything to do with discipline and endurance.
Lyric, a senior at Lenape High School in Medford, is not the focus of the film, which instead centers on how top-ranked teams, including the Shooting Stars, fare at Champions League, an all-star cheerleading competition.
Yet at home in her Freehold gym, the spotlight is often trained squarely on the Burlington County teen. Three times a week, Lyric and her teammates, wearing various shiny “Shooting Stars” outfits and lightweight white sneakers, plug away at intricate stunts that are the hallmarks of all-star cheerleading — a mix of acrobatics, gymnastics, dance and traditional cheerleading.
Parents, who pay thousands of dollars for the privilege — costs include outfits and competition fees — watch from a windowed hallway as their children flip, tumble and strut on the gym’s blue spring floor.
Lyric’s disease was once not so invisible. When she was in kindergarten, her spleen and liver had ballooned to 21 times the normal size, giving her stomach a bloated appearance. Because her body did not produce enough enzymes to break down a lipid, the fatty substance accumulated in her organs, causing the swelling, which required her to wear a brace.
If Lyric’s body hadn’t responded to enzyme therapy after diagnosis when she was 5, her prognosis would have been much different. Gaucher’s can affect organs as well as the bones and nervous system. Nevertheless, when she expressed a desire to try all-star cheerleading in elementary school, the notion was not met with overwhelming enthusiasm.
“The doctors didn’t want me to be doing anything at all,” Lyric says.
Understandably, Lyric’s mother, Keesha Springer, was initially not so keen on her daughter performing such high-flying moves, either.
“That’s my baby up in the air,” she says. Still, Springer thinks cheerleading gave Lyric something to pin her hopes on, a way to power through what could seem like an impossible situation. She remembers the days when she had to plead for Lyric to be passed a ball in school, since Gaucher’s can mean easy bruising.
“It was a lot of fighting and a lot of paper-signing,” Springer says, becoming emotional. “I fought for her,” she says, her voice cracking. “I’m not the kind of parent that backs down.”
Lyric was just 4 when she got her first taste of cheerleading on a local recreation team. The feeling of being in front of the crowd made her want more.
She began training more seriously, and, four years ago, made the move to World Cup All Stars, where she became a pivotal piece of what is considered the gym’s most elite senior team. Members can’t join. They have to be invited by coaches.
Some, like Lyric, travel for an hour to practice in Monmouth County. Others come from as far away as New York and Connecticut.
Destiny Smith, a teammate, met Lyric when they were both 7, at their former gym, Sewell’s South Jersey Storm, where Lyric trained for six years.
“All eyes are on her the entire time,” Smith says.
What makes Lyric worthy of the spotlight?
Smith puts it simply: “She gets stuff done.”
This is key. In all-star cheerleading, there’s no do-overs, time-outs or free-throws.
“It all rides on that two minutes and 30 seconds,” says Mark Robert Ellis, the director of the “Champions League” film, which is being shown twice this week at hundreds of theaters.
Last year, because of their status as a top-rated team, the Shooting Stars appeared in the first “Champions” film and ended up winning the senior all-girls division (some groups are co-ed). The teams are judged on criteria including pyramids, stunts — flyers like Lyric must stay up, or face setbacks — showmanship and tumbling.Filmed last month in Los Angeles, the contest, a competition staged for the film in cooperation with Nfinity, an athletic brand known for its cheerleading shoes, pits the Freehold team against 29 other high school groups.
On any given day or night, various teams of cheerleaders as young as 3 years old hone these skills at the Freehold gym, making the space look like a three-ring circus. Indeed, this genre of cheerleading is part gymnastics, part circus act, say Elaine Pascale and her daughter, Joelle Antico, head coaches at the gym, which has been molding champion teams for 21 years. As a team captain, Lyric already plays a special role. Yet her example speaks louder.
“The kid has never missed practice,” Antico says. In this, she’s helped set the bar for a no-excuse team attitude.
When Lyric’s tenure at the Freehold gym winds down this summer, it’s on to the University of Maryland, where she’ll major in biology. However this won’t mean the end of her cheerleading career; she fully intends to carry on with the college’s squad.
Lyric minted her plans for the future when she hadn’t yet joined the starry ranks of the cheerleading gym. At 12, Lyric announced that she wanted to go to the very same university and become a pediatrician. As a child, she’d ask her doctors about their jobs, and eventually proclaimed that one day, she was going to help cure Gaucher’s — a daunting mission, to be sure.
But just tell her “no” and see what happens, her mother says.
“It seems like every goal that she’s setting, she’s hitting it.”