By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
Listening to Grand Canyon University cheerleaders talk about their reputation on campus is like being transported back in time to “Happy Days.” GCU is a different kind of place, and GCU Cheer is a different kind of team.
“Not a lot of cheer teams get the support that we do,” junior Carli Nielson said. “I mean, we are so appreciated around campus. We wear this uniform and people notice. When we show up for an event, they are so happy to see us.
“I think it’s great, walking around knowing that and wearing it proud. I can always have my head held high.”
GCU Cheer was standing tall for another reason after the recent Universal Cheerleaders Association College Spirit Camp in Santa Barbara, Calif. Once again, GCU dominated the awards, winning …
- First place in Fight Song
- First place in Overall Gameday
- Traditions Award
- Leadership Award (voted on by other teams, asking a simple question: If you couldn’t be on your team, which team would you want to be on?)
- Most Collegiate (voted on by UCA staff)
GCU’s mascot, Thunder, was at it again, too, winning Camp Champ and the Leadership and Most Collegiate awards. Their results were similar to those achieved by GCU Dance, detailed here. They’ll all be on display Friday night at Lope-A-Palooza, a monster pep rally that begins at 7:49 p.m. (19:49 in military time, signifying the year Grand Canyon was founded).
Just as Thunder is no ordinary mascot, the Cheer team stands out for a lot of reasons, and No. 1 is faith. Every year the team picks a Bible verse to live by, and this year it’s John 3:30:
He must become greater, I must become less.
“This year we are really focusing on the fact that we have a platform to truly make a difference to those around us,” said Emily Stephens, Director of Spirit Programs. “That’s definitely the big part for us at camp. It’s an opportunity to intentionally influence people, and hopefully they walk away going, ‘Wow, they really and truly are good, Christ-centered people.’ And that is not just because they attend a Christian school; it’s really wanting to go out of their way to show love and kindness to others like Jesus would. Our hope is that those people then, in turn, influence others at their schools in the same way, and we’ll know we have truly made a difference!”
It also is a time of going out of their way for each other. The trip to Santa Barbara is an important bonding experience for all 53 members of the team (33 returners, 20 rookies). They tell stories and jokes on the bus ride there. They stay up late talking while at camp. They share memories on the bus ride home – if they’re not exhausted from all those late nights.
“This team is so awesome because you could be grumpy, you could be having the worst day ever, you could be tired, and then you walk into practice and it’s like, ‘Why was I grumpy? Why was I tired?’” sophomore Madi Swaithes said. “The person next to you is going through the same thing … you’ve got each other’s backs, you’ve got that support.
“You hear all the time, ‘Oh, just leave it at the door.’ Well, this team makes you want to leave it at the door. And if you can’t, then they’re there to talk with you about it.”
That togetherness manifests itself in many ways.
For one, they get into the Game Day scene at GCU just as much as the Havocs and the rest of the audience. Just hearing the Purple Pregame Party music from men’s basketball games is enough to get them going.
“It will always hype us up,” Nielson said. “No matter how many times it’s played, we will jump off our feet. Even if we’re alone walking down Lopes Way …”
It even makes them more attractive to employees, both on campus and off.
“We just hold ourselves to a higher standard,” said Kevin Luque, a team captain. “It’s a lot of work. It’s a big commitment, too. We do get tired – we’re human – but we know it’s worth it. At the end of the day, we love being out there at the games, cheering on the Havocs, just getting those chills every time you’re out there. It’s super exciting just being able to experience that.
“To have that support that we have with our team – it’s so welcoming. And we just want to pour that into other people as well. There are so many other important things, like being early to events just to make sure you’re on time, just being respectful to people you’re speaking to. People who pick up these habits, they take them to their jobs and they notice a difference.”
Said Nielson, “You learn how to be great person through GCU Cheer. We do a lot of character-building, and I have grown so much from my freshman year. I look back on myself before and I’m like, ‘Wow,’ like ‘WOW,’ I have changed so much, and that’s because of the coaches. They pour so much into us.”
The outpouring at camp involves sweat as much as positive messages. They’re out there all day on steamy artificial turf, doing their routines and physically challenging stunts. It’s a lot of hard work amid the fun.
“It’s an adventure, and they kind of survive it together,” Stephens said. “Camp is a time where we really just get to be with us. We love what we do and we love being around the campus, but camp is that first opportunity to just focus on what we’re doing, kind of be our own cheerleaders.”
And it’s all 53 together, which created an incredible scene at Santa Barbara: They were splayed out in one long line, the length of a football field, doing their fight song – or mega fight song, as they called it.
The camp instructors, who conduct these events all over the country and see all the big-name cheerleading teams, told Stephens it was the best one they’ve seen all year. They could readily see that the GCU cheerleaders’ enthusiasm is genuine.
“That, to me, was the best compliment that we could have received,” Stephens said.
The compliments weren’t limited to camp. A year ago, the team’s bus driver, Dean, was so moved by what he saw, he said he was going to go back to church. Dean was back in the saddle this year, and this time he mustered up the courage to speak to them all.
“If I could just spend every day with you,” he told them, “I would.”
The reputation, like the faith, is real. So are the results. So are the chills.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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