Lauren Chandler can easily recall her first practices as a member of the University of Louisville competitive cheerleading squad.
It was an eye-opening experience.
"It was a whole new world. ... When you get to college, everybody at that level was the best where they came from," Chandler said. "They break down all your bad habits. You relearn everything.
"The first year, especially, there was a lot of calling home homesick; don't feel like you're quite cutting it."
The 2006 Lakeside High School graduate persevered, and it paid off. This past year, Louisville's Small Coed Division competitive squad, made up of 16 women and four men, won its second consecutive national championship.
Her first national title caught Chandler by surprise, if only because the team did not have its customary practices heading into the championships.
That year, the Louisville women's basketball team advanced to the Final Four and the cheerleading team accompanied them. In addition to cheering for the men's and women's basketball teams, the squad cheers for football and volleyball, some soccer games, and various events on campus.
With less time to practice in advance of the cheerleading finals, the team held an impromptu practice in a facility near the basketball arena.
Despite the change in schedule, Louisville came out on top.
"The first year we won, I think I was in shock at first. It was something we'd battled for our first two years," Chandler said. "It was surprising to us. Obviously, we had to come together as a team."
That title followed finishes of second and third in Chandler's first two years at Louisville.
The experience of competing at a national championship meet is sort of like the 2000 cheerleading movie Bring It On , Chandler said.
"It is very intense, very competitive. You wouldn't think these nice ... cute little cheerleaders would be so hard core," she said. "When you walk in, the mood has been set, and everyone is eyeing you down."
For Chandler, winning the team's second consecutive title this past season -- and going out on top as a champion her senior year -- was the icing on the cake.
Considering the team's routine of practicing, the fact that the school competes for titles is an accomplishment in itself.
Louisville does not have its own cheerleading facility, and the facility it uses is open to the public during the day, leaving night practices as the only option. So the team practices six days a week from about 8:30 p.m. until after midnight.
Chandler has one semester remaining in nursing school. Along with the late cheerleading hours, she would get up daily at 5 a.m., be at the hospital by 7 a.m. and stay there until 4 p.m.
"It was really hard," Chandler said of balancing cheerleading and the rigor of the nursing program. "A lot of times, I wouldn't get to do the things I wanted to do, with school and everything."
Chandler's former cheerleading coach at Lakeside identified that ability to balance the two sides as one of her strongest skills.
"She's just a great girl," said Christa Burch, who coached the 2005 Lakeside squad that finished third in the state. "Always there for her friends, willing to help anybody any way she could.
"Academic-wise, she did a great job in the classroom as well as on the cheer mat."
Burch, who thinks Chandler would make a great cheerleading coach, believes Chandler's success derives from her passion for the sport.
"She's got the heart," Burch said. "A lot of athletes practice and work hard, but if it's not in your heart, you can't achieve what you want."
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