How Cheerleading Saved My Life
Before I explain how this crazy sport changed saved my life…
My name is Shane Womack and I’m the founder and creator of Cheer Media, the company behind Cheer! Magazine and CheerDaily.com. I’ve been a “diehard” cheerleader almost my entire life. Most people don’t believe me when I tell them, but I grew up on a small farm in rural Mississippi. I guess you could say I had a normal non-eventful childhood. My entire immediate family lived mostly on the same road and I spent most of the time outdoors on my trampoline, riding 4-wheelers, bikes and doing what any other “country” activity I could find. Fishing with my grandfather was always fun. I knew at an early age that I didn’t have much interest in any other sports. It wasn’t until just before Middle School that my focus would change completely.
For as long as I remember, I’ve always been mesmerized by the sport of cheerleading. I guess you could say that I caught the bug somewhere around 5th grade. Little did I know, but it took one summer day at the age of 12 for me to want to know everything I could about cheerleading. I remember it like it was yesterday.
I had two best friends growing up and we were naturally inseparable, and of course, they were both girls. Our parents had all grown up together, went to the same school and they lived fairly close – just a few miles down the road. It must have been fate but our parents all got married and started families at around the same time. I was born first, on October 2nd. Lindsey was born next on November 4th, and Heather was born on December 8th. We always joked that it was a coincidence that we were all born so close together. We grew up as best friends from diapers through high school.
I always hated not being able to be as active as Lindsey and Heather were, our family didn’t have a ton of money for me to do after school activities, but somehow I convinced my mom to let me join the same gymnastics class in third grade as my two best friends. We commuted once a week about 45 minutes each way and I knew immediately that flipping around like a gymnast was my thing. I wasn’t introduced to actual cheerleading until a birthday/pool/cheerleading party for my best friend. We were going into Middle School at the end of the summer and Lindsey’s parents had arranged for the high school cheerleaders to teach motions, cheers and tumbling at the party. Of course, I was told it was a girl’s thing and that boys weren’t supposed to be interested in this, but I was stubborn and wanted to do everything that my best friends did.
I tried to keep it a secret for a long time, but soon enough, our group of friends started discussing cheer tryouts. Lindsey’s mom was the middle school sponsor and I told her that I really wanted to be on the team and asked what I had to do to tryout. To be honest, I was afraid that I would be ridiculed and bullied (which I was) and we both made the decision that maybe I should tryout for the Tiger school mascot and I would still get to be on the team but not an actual “cheerleader”.
Tryouts came and I was selected as the school mascot. The first male mascot in the school history. But, it wasn’t enough. By the end of 6th grade, I had pretty good tumbling skills and really enjoyed being a disguised “cheerleader” behind the tiger costume, but my heart really wanted to be a real cheerleader. Of course, I was bullied and called names, but I was passionate about what I was doing and somehow was able to brush off the comments and keep pushing forward.
Another year passed and I still wasn’t quite able to make the decision to actually try out as a cheerleader so I remained a “mascot” through 8th grade. I loved to throw my skills and would take off the tiger head and flip across our school gym at pep rallies. It was always a rush and I couldn’t get enough.
When tryouts for high school rolled around that spring, I knew that I had sweat enough as a mascot. Looking back, it was one of the scariest moment of my life. I was about to tryout to be the first male cheerleader at my high school. It was sure to be social suicide. My parents were both skeptical and I think they were trying to convince me to not put so much energy into it because they knew the amount of comments I would get for being a ”girly male cheerleader”.
Sure enough, I made the team. I had a rush of feelings from happy to scared to confused, but I somehow knew that I had made the right decision. All of our teammates from Middle School had made the High School team and we knew at tryouts that we had a good group of athletes. We didn’t know how good we were until we got to camp. For the past two years, we had always attended UCA camp at Mississippi College, and of course, I was always the only guy at the camp. It was against camp policy for me to sleep in the dorms with the girls, so I felt super special when I got to hang out with the UCA Staff and usually had my own dorm room. It was here that I made some of the best bonds and friends that to this day have helped me get to where I am.
Later that summer after camp, we voted as a team and set a goal to compete that year. By then, I was working on partner stunts and could barely throw a toss chair, but I was determined to be the best cheerleader in the state. As the only guy cheerleader, I loved to stunt, whether it was group stunts or partner stunts. I would throw all of the girls around as much as I could to work on technique. When choreography camp arrived, our coach had selected a really reputable guy named David Hanbery to teach us our routine, he had just started a cheerleading gym about an hour away and spent his summers teaching skills camps. We knew him and his teammates were good from watching them on ESPN as they cheered for Mississippi College, one of the best teams in the country. He was completely encouraging and I think surprised to see a little country boy as the only male cheerleader on a high school team in rural southern Mississippi. David was super supportive and we have been close friends since that day.
He had taught us the routine of death. We were a talented team and it was early in the summer of 2000. Shortly after, in August, Coach Broadhead took our team to see Bring It On in theatres. It was at that moment of seeing guys cast in the movie that I knew that I was on to something and that I would be cheering in college to throw skills like that.
We had months to prepare for regionals and it’s funny looking back, but we had the hardest time as a team to hit our stunts consistently, but we never gave up. We literally had the toughest routine that, at the time, I don’t think most universities could hit. I think that routine is the reason our team got so close that year. Regionals came in November; we placed second and qualified for State a month later in December.
I think we practiced for four to five hours a day leading up to our State Championship. We were good and we knew we were up against some great teams as well. It was our freshman year and our seniors wanted the title just as bad as we did. Two minutes and thirty seconds went by and we did it. We hit.
Awards were later that and I am pretty sure that I had thrown up twice from nervousness watching other teams perform. We wanted those jackets and rings as the Mississippi 4A Small Varsity State Champions! The awards ceremony seemed to last forever but the announcer finally got to our division. We were all huddled in a small circle holding hands as tight as we could waiting for our school name to be called.
“And your 4A Small Varsity State Champions… Mendenhall High School!,” the announcer exclaimed. I remember looking next to me at my two best friends and yelling, “We did it.” From that moment, I knew that cheerleading had forever changed my life. We had also received a bid to the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championships in Orlando, FL. It would be most of our first time to go to Walt Disney World. I knew that competitive cheerleading was my way out of my small town.
The next summer, I would get my first job as soon as I could drive at a new local fitness club that had a cheer floor and soon began teaching tumbling and cheerleading classes there throughout school. It wasn’t long before our high school and other high school teams in the area started training there as well. We were a super close and talented team throughout high school. The girls I cheered with are some of my best friends to this day.
I spent my entire four years of high school working on my skills. After few years of cheer camps, I met the cheer coach of University of Southern Mississippi and he had convinced me to drive 45 minutes each Sunday to open gym so that I could learn to stunt with the USM cheerleaders. And like clockwork, even before I could drive, there was no way after the first practice with them that I was going to miss any open gyms. Learning to stunt was the most accomplished feeling that I had ever felt.
It took a couple years of begging, but once I could finally drive, I convinced my parents to let me join an All Star gym called Central Mississippi Cheerleading about an hour north of my home town. My mom told me there was no way they would pay for it, but I, again, was stubborn, and for good reason. When I finally arrived at the All Star gym the first day, I knew the owner, David, and they welcomed me with open arms. There were four other guys at the gym that night and they were there stunting and working on things. The girls on the team had convinced them to join and they had the same bug to compete as I did. It was super refreshing to finally be around guys that knew exactly what I was going through. Money was always an issue, as there was no way that my family could afford for me to be a part of this team. I continued to work hard teaching classes (after high school practice) at our local gym, and would drive right after work an hour to All Star practice a few times a week.
It didn’t take me long to realize that All Star Cheerleading was completely different than being a high school cheerleader. We competed in the Small Coed Advanced division (before levels were a thing!) and won all over the region from New Orleans, to Atlanta, to UCA All Star Nationals. I didn’t know how good we were until we made it to Orlando. This team could stunt like no other, and we made finals. I’ll never forget the roar of the crowd in the, as it was known back then, Milk House when we hit our Elite Stunt sequence, an arabesque-tick tock to opposite stretch-tick tock to stretch double down. By the time we got to our ending dance, the arena was going haywire. We had hit again. I’m pretty sure that our team was the first team to hit not one, but two high to high tick tocks in the history of All Star Cheerleading. (Years before the famed Maddie Gardner tick tock.) We took home the infamous black jackets and that’s when I knew it was time to focus on my next goal: College.
After years of no major support in my cheer career from my family, they had pretty much told me that I would not be getting much help to go to college. And, that if that was my goal, then it was going to be something that I did on my own. None of my immediate family had ever graduated from college, most had never even made it through high school or even a GED. I had my heart set on the University of Southern Mississippi and didn’t really pay much attention to other schools. And then everything changed.
The Spring before my senior year, David had offered to take us to a stunt clinic at the University of Kentucky. A school to this day that is a dominating university in collegiate cheerleading. It was at that clinic that I met Brian Elza and Jomo Thompson, who both expressed to me that I was invited to tryout at UK. I was over the moon excited about UK being a potential university and a scholarship that would help me go to college and get out of the life I knew in Mississippi.
My senior year, after our high school qualified for State, I had also been asked by the State Cheer Director to tryout for State All-American as the only guy in the state. I had never been more nervous in my life to get in front of a crowd, but to do an individual routine… I was petrified. Our team got second place after a mishap in our routine that year, but my best friend and I both went home as State All-Americans. One of my favorite moments from High School.
And then the worst thing that could happen, happened. Shortly after our State Championship, I was competing with CMC at a local competition and had a freak accident, rolling and breaking both ankles on a toe touch tumbling sequence. It was months until college tryouts and I was told I would be in a wheelchair for at least four weeks. I had to face it that unfortunately UK was out of the picture and began to look at other schools.
After months of rehab, and not getting to compete like I wanted most of my last semester of high school, I was even more motivated to get my skills back. If I was not at school or work, I was at practice. By April, I could tumble and stunt again, just in time to compete at The Cheerleading Worlds, to which we had received a bid from UCA Nationals just a month before. I wasn’t physically at 100% but I knew I had a lot of work to do.
That month, I had heard that Louisiana State University (LSU) was looking for guys to tryout and I had never even really considered LSU as a school, but I knew that they were an amazing program as the football team had just won the National Championship that year. My friend and teammate Scott, from CMC, was an avid LSU fan and making the trip down to tryout. After some discussion with my coaches, I decided that, why not, I’ll tryout at LSU. And my life changed, again.
Tryouts at LSU were tough, nerve wracking and the best choice I had made since I became a cheerleader in the first place. The campus was beautiful, I met new friends and then fell in love for the second time as an LSU Tiger. I never looked back, It was a tough decision, but I eventually turned down a scholarship offer from USM. I bled Purple and Gold from the moment I stepped foot in Baton Rouge, LA. It was the perfect school for me. I spent four years in Baton Rouge, separated by a small hiatus in school enrollment after Hurricane Katrina.
During my hiatus, my parents were struggling after some severe damage to the farm which kept me from returning to school full time. My all star coach and close friend, David Hanbery, asked me to apply for a small job in Atlanta that was “cheerleading related.” After a few interviews, I was offered the job and moved to Atlanta working as a Marketing Assistant for Inside Cheerleading magazine. Little did I know, that this job would ultimately help me realize my next love: marketing.
After a very quick year and a ton of money saving, I returned to Baton Rouge to finish my degree at LSU. There was no other place that I wanted to cheer or be at to finish my college career, and I was able to work remotely part-time for Inside Cheerleading through college. I had to wait until the spring to tryout for the team at LSU, as I had missed the spring tryouts for this season.
Cheering in college (and getting a scholarship) at LSU is definitely my proudest moment as all of my hard work in the skills and time I put into cheer had paid off. All of the effort was worth it. I graduated from LSU in 2009 with a degree in Business Marketing. Shortly after graduation, I returned to Atlanta, GA.
I had always known that someday I wanted my own business and in late 2014, that dream came a reality. I founded Cheer Media in December 2014, and began the work on creating a new brand, Cheer! Magazine which launched in March 2015.
Cheerleading has taught me some incredible lessons in life. It taught me how to work, it gave me friendships and it made me who I am. I don’t know where I would be without that decision I made at 12 years old.
I will forever be able to say that cheerleading saved my life.