Life and Love

Who am I without this?

When I said goodbye to cheerleading.

Who am I without cheerleading?

In February of 2019, I asked myself this question after working my last event for the company I was part of for three years. Working for this company followed ten years of competitive cheerleading and five years of school cheerleading.

It was my life. It filled 13 of my 22 years.

On that February day in 2019, I sat on the floor of my bedroom and sobbed. Ugly, snot-filled, chest stuttering sobs. I couldn’t fathom saying a final goodbye to a sport and a community that felt as much a part of me as my lungs, my breath.

But I did. I had the choice to stay and continue to put my body through skills I couldn’t keep up with anymore, to stay and risk injury and forego other opportunities, but I didn’t stay. I made the mind numbing decision to slither out of my cheerleader skin into a new identity I didn’t recognize. I was wrecked. I was scared.

Who am I without cheerleading?

I started cheering competitively when I was eight. Soon into the all star world, I was captivated by the notion of cheerleading–what it meant to be a cheerleader.

It was different at different points of my life. When I was young, it was all fun. I got to tell my friends I was a cheerleader! I tumbled at recess. I wore my uniform to school on sports day. I fervently told people cheerleading was sport, and asked to see a back handspring when they refuted.

As I got older, “cheerleader” became my image. I was a varsity cheerleader all four years of high school, so I carried the weight of that image at all times. In the hallways, at games, out in public. When I wasn’t in eyesight, I was still consumed. I videotaped my tumbling constantly to post on social media. I stretched and jumped and danced in the living room. I was a cheerleader, and it outweighed all other parts of my identity.

I was talented. I was never the best, but I desperately wanted to be. The greatest skill I had going for me was tumbling. So I tumbled all the time.

And I loved it. I loved being a cheerleader. The mat was my happy place. I stomped out rough days with endless passes on the floor, and I will never be able to fully describe the euphoria I felt when I competed. Nothing exhilarates me more, to this day.

But when I reached the end of high school, I was completely burnt. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was past my highest point of progression, that I couldn’t advance any further in skill level. It was crushing. I was searching for colleges to cheer at when my heart wasn’t in it. I dreaded going to practices. I wanted it to be over for a little while.

Yet, I still broke down at my last all star competition. I still wanted to be a cheerleader, but at the same time I didn’t. It was a constant tug of war. I changed my mind every day.

I eventually chose not to cheer in college, but I stayed in the peripheral through a company teaching cheer camps during the summer, which brought me to that day in February 2019.

Who am I without cheerleading?

On my bedroom floor, I scrolled through photos of my cheerleading career. They seemed endless, but they weren’t. They ended that day.

And as I scrolled, remembering the moments, I felt a stronger conviction that it was time to let go. I was three years into my college career, discovering who I was without the cheerleader label. I knew I wasn’t going to cheer forever. I was developing as a writer, a ministry leader, a friend, a daughter, and a sister. I wanted to travel, to study abroad during a summer previously filled by camps.

My skills were slipping away. I fell flat on my face doing a standing tuck the previous summer. My greatest ability in tumbling wrecked my body more and more. Toe touches pulled my hamstrings.

I was seeing the flaws of the sport. That it caused me to wish my body to look different–my legs to be shorter, my hair to be shinier, my face to be less oily so my makeup looked perfect. That I often felt anxious and in competition with members of my own team. That I wanted to be open about being a human being, with faults and flaws and mistakes, in a sport that refuses to acknowledge imperfection.

It was time.

I closed my puffy eyes and I took a deep breath and I stepped away. No longer a cheerleader.

I called my mom and said I don’t know who I am without this.

But the key anecdote here? Without this sport, I am still someone.

Who am I without cheerleading?

In the almost year since that day in February 2019, I’ve only scraped the surface of this question. I’ve explored and reminisced on the best moments and the ugly ones. I’ve reached for new opportunities and I’ve made mistakes. But I believe the timing of my decision to say goodbye was perfect. And that the courage to step away wasn’t given to me by accident or happenstance.

There have been many moments I’ve missed my days as a cheerleader, but I’ve never regretted stepping away.

My love and admiration remains strong from a distance.

And from here, I’m content just being me.

By laurenstockam

Lauren is a graduate student at Missouri State University in Springfield, MO.