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March 31, 2004

Finding cheer, even in defeat

From: San Jose Mercury News, CA - Mar 31, 2004

By Lisa Fernandez

Mercury News

ANAHEIM - When the cheerleaders from the California School for the Deaf were halfway through their routine, the crowd began to chant the school's initials. As the 13-member squad from Fremont finished its last move, everyone in the vast hall rose to their feet in the evening's only standing ovation.

The wonderful response led one cheerleader to ask the question that was on everyone's minds:

''Did we get that attention because we're good, or because we're deaf?''

The cheerleaders were good enough to make the prestigious USA High School Spirit Nationals -- the first all-deaf squad to qualify for the West Coast's largest competition. But they weren't good enough to win. And in the end, that didn't really matter. Only in losing did they know they were judged like everyone else.

When the squad joined 5,200 competitors at the Anaheim Convention Center, the cheerleaders were full of anxiety about stepping onto center stage, far from their sheltered school in Fremont. Were they really good enough? Would they fit in? Would they look right?

The weeks before the competition were marked by typical pregame jitters -- petty fights, stormy walkouts from practice, pulled muscles. Leala Holcomb, 16, one of the squad's three captains and a fourth-generation deaf child, worried that drama would jinx the performance. She wanted to win, but most of all, she didn't want to be pitied.

''I'm so scared we will mess up or not look good and that everyone will think, 'That's OK, that's so cute, they are just deaf,' '' she said through an interpreter.

Time for Mickey

The buses pulled up at the Disneyland Hotel on March 18, the Thursday before the three-day competition. Coaches Farrah Nolan and Laurie Kettle-Rivera wanted to give the four-boy and nine-girl squad time to ride roller coasters and shake Mickey Mouse's hand, and have a dress rehearsal on the huge stage.

''The kids hadn't really known how big a deal this was until they got here,'' Kettle-Rivera said in Anaheim before the event. ''When they saw the convention center, their jaws dropped.''

But there were other things on their minds, too.

Erin Ross, 18, another team captain, had envisioned meeting guys, even guys who could hear, over the weekend.

After riding Splash Mountain on her way to practice Friday afternoon, she bumped into Will, a hearing boy who has deaf grandparents. He is a cheerleader from Las Vegas. Noticing that she was deaf, he asked for directions in American Sign Language.

''I thought I'd never have a chance to see him again,'' she said in a written interview. But that night, at a private cheerleading party at California Adventure -- she saw him in line for a roller coaster and was bold enough to tell him that her friends ''thought he was hot.'' They exchanged e-mail addresses.

Today's cheerleaders are not only popular and perky, they also are gymnasts who vault and flip. An industry has been built on their looks and athleticism.

Registers chirped incessantly at what amounted to a cheerleading mini-mart outside the convention center. Ross bought gray spandex sweats and a few hooded zipper tops -- all with the USA Nationals emblem. The squad bought three videos of the competition -- one for each day, at $40 apiece.

Leala eyed a professional hair stylist creating curls with square edges -- ringlets Shirley Temple would die for. She was intrigued but resisted. The Fremont girls had already agreed: for the competition, Kettle-Rivera would do their hair in simple but sophisticated twists and rolls. They'd wear light eye shadow and minimal lipstick with their brown miniskirts and matching tank tops edged with orange and white.

On Saturday, the squad arrived about four hours before stage time. Like the other teams, they posed for a professional photographer. But they were the only cheerleaders trailed by a crew from CBS's ''Early Show,'' whose producer had learned of their story in the Mercury News.

Other schools buzzed and whispered that the deaf team had arrived. One woman asked the Fremont coaches, ''So, how do they cheer if they can't hear? Do they feel the vibrations?''

The squad focused, shutting everyone else out.

Brows furrowed, and tension showed on their faces. As they practiced backstage minutes before their performance, an official noticed one of their stunts was illegal -- it was too advanced for their division. It was Leala's stunt, and she fumed. Her coach calmed her down. She reworked the move with her partners.

Once they were on the blue gym mats, what Leala calls ''stage magic'' set in.

Audience joins in

They danced. They twirled. They leaped. They counted the beats in their heads and relied on visual cues to stay in sync with the music. They held up three posters: C-S-D! instead of shouting the name of their school.

That's when the audience rose from their seats, rooting along with the squad -- a cheerleader's ultimate raison d'etre. The teens couldn't hear the shouts. But they saw from the audience's throats and open mouths that they were making sounds. Everyone noticed the standing ovation.

''I've never seen them do it with so much emotion or facial expression,'' Kettle-Rivera said. Nolan, the other coach, also wept.

But judging at this competition leaves no room for error.

Mai-Anh Lewis, head cheerleading judge for the division, said the Fremont cheerleaders were ''absolutely impressive'' in their energy level, enthusiasm and ability to engage the crowd ''without any verbal communication.''

''We had the chills,'' Lewis said.

But they also were inexperienced. Lewis said the cheerleaders need to improve their execution, devise more creative formations and ''add spice'' to their choreography.

Shock was the first reaction when the judge announced that the Fremont school didn't make the finals. The cheerleaders looked at each other in disbelief, stunned. They asked their coaches, who were interpreting the results, to repeat in sign language what the judge said.

But after a few moments relief set in.

Ross put it this way: ''I felt OK. I felt this was true. That no one pitied us.''

© 2004 Mercury News and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.