Glenwood Valley Athletics (GVA) is in its fifth year. It’s a cheer squad, but not the kind with chants and pompoms: At GVA, the cheerleaders are the athletes.
In the old Glenwood Springs Mall, most storefronts are dark, their metal gates pulled down and locked. A few remain open; there's a teen-accessory shop, a discount clothing store and a party store. Blues Traveler pipes through the sound system, probably the same soundtrack from the mall’s heyday.
You don’t have to weave through throngs of people, but as you turn toward a darkened department store, there are bodies everywhere, cartwheeling, flipping and sending handsprings in all directions. As you get closer, Blues Traveler is drowned out by booming dance remixes to popular radio hits.
This is Glenwood Valley Athletics, an energetic oasis with kids of all ages spilling out from the converted retail space. Inside the room is filled with more children, on springboards, mats, trampolines, and dancing in sync as they practice their routines.
“It’s kinda fun being the hidden secret because when people do see us in action they just blow up with excitement, like where have you guys been we can't believe you're here and this talent is here in the valley,” said Christine Dingman, the founder of GVA.
Dingman began the facility five years ago with 12 competitors. Now, she is commonly referred to as “mom” by 62 athletes from the age of 3 to 18.
“Here, we have people from Basalt we have people from Rifle, New Castle, Silt, Glenwood. We all just come together as a team,” said Kyerra Wong, 18, who was a cheerleader at her high school. This is different.
“Because with high school it’s mostly focused like on other peoples’ sports like basketball, volleyball, soccer, football,” she said. “Here it’s focused on your sport only.”
Wong is part of a four-member stunt group. Lindsey Smith and Grace Wesseling join her as the base. In their routine, they hoist their “flyer” into the air, who stands on her teammates' upturned hands, and then gets tossed higher, completing flips before being gingerly placed back on solid ground by her spotters. It’s an athletic feat, but Wesseling said they often have to explain their sport to outsiders.
“You have to tell them it’s a sport because we are athletes. Like, we are not just people who go out and cheer for other people. No, we cheer for ourselves,” Wesseling said.
Learning back handsprings is fun, but it’s the lifelong lessons and feeling of family that the participants return to over and over. Deborah Jaouen is a proud cheer mom with two kids in the program. When she tells this to someone new, they tend to ask how old her girls are, but she’s actually the mother of two boys. She has seen her sons Wyndom, 11, and Silas, 6, take to the mat with a passion they haven’t had for other sports.
“At school I’m really not as confident, but when I go to cheer I just know this is my place,” Wyndom explained.
Dingman hopes tolerance is a lasting lesson for the cheer family. And, in these early years of the program, she also wants to teaches the skill of losing. The team has won the sportsmanship award four times during competitions, going up against other all-star cheer squads from across the state. It’s a way of telling a team they have a great attitude, even if their routine isn’t earning them enough points for a trophy. The stunt group has had plenty of opportunities to “learn about losing.”
“We tend to beat ourselves up over it. We know we are better than this,” said Wong. “We’ll stay late after practice and work on it until we can get it solid.”
Which is why, this spring, news that the team qualified for a national competition was such a surprise.
“As soon as we got that bid everyone on the team started crying because we couldn't believe that this team, this small gym, actually got a bid to go to D2 summit,” said Smith.
The D2 summit is like the World Series of cheer. It’s happening in Disney World’s Varsity All Star Cheer stadium this May. Some groups know they are going, but there are also wildcard invitations or “bids” which are announced online after qualifying competitions. Dingman checked the page after their latest meet and saw Glenwood Valley Athletics’ name come up on the screen.
“And I lost it, lost it!” she remembered. “At almost 11 o'clock I’m calling coaches jumping around my house jumping on my bed. I don't think I could sleep for two days.”
Now, just a month out from the biggest performance in the gym’s history, the team is working hard to get their tumbling, stunts and choreography in perfect synchronicity, which Grace Wesseling said is bringing them even closer together.
“It's important because you can't get better if you don't like each other,” she said.
Meanwhile the coaches and the cheer moms are selling tamales, butterbraids and popcorn, trying to raise enough money for all the kids on the team to travel to the competition. It’s a big leap for the little known competitive cheer squad.
But no matter what happens, Wyndom and the rest of his teammates will take that sportsmanship attitude with them on the trip, even if that means dreaming small to start out with.
“We are going to summit, and we are not getting last place,” he said.
Glenwood Valley Athletics is holding an event showcase on May 5th from 1-3 p.m/ at the Glenwood Springs High School & accepting donations at all ANB Banks.