Spice It Up: The athletes of Universidad Autónoma de Centro América in Costa Rica are giving U.S. cheer a run for our money.
By Kathleen Hager
When one imagines a college cheer squad, a decades-long legacy normally comes to mind, whether good or bad. But the cheerleaders at Universidad Autónoma de Centro América in San José, Costa Rica, are building their own tradition after only five years in existence, competing head to head with the best of the U.S. Their coach Erick Siles—who also coaches (count ’em!) 11 other squads—created the program at UACA in January 2007. However, unlike conventional university programs, the team is 100 percent focused on competing. Supporting other school sports isn’t the cheer norm in Costa Rica, so the hours these athletes spend practicing is to wow their own fans.
And wow us they did at the 2011 NCA College Nationals in Daytona, FL. As they hit their showstopping routine during finals, the UACA squad looked like they were having a blast. And it turns out that wasn’t just part of the performance. “It really was one of our best experiences,” says Coach Siles. “We were very impressed with the organization, the place and the teams. We had such a good time.” After seeing them perform, AC asked the team to participate in a “Hot Shots” photo shoot (look for their pic in an upcoming issue!), and their genuine appreciation and enthusiasm was so inspiring that we just had to hear their story. Keep reading to find out what competitive cheer has done for UACA’s athletes and who influences them the most. (Here’s a hint: It’s you!)
The Costa Rican Cheer Climate
Unlike in the U.S., where several college squads recently gave up the supporting role they once played in their schools’ athletic departments, UACA was born into a strictly competitive environment. “The most important thing for [our athletes] is to compete,” says Coach Siles. “They practice all year long just for the competitions; it’s their motivation and the goal of our team.”
They may not know what it’s like to boost a crowd’s school spirit at a football game or encourage their basketball team with cheers of “Go! Fight! Win!” but that’s OK with them. After all, their school’s been cheering them on since the beginning and they’ve rustled up their own following. “The university supports us and they enjoy our routines very much,” says Ana Lucía Bolaños. Coach Siles adds: “Our team’s one of the strongest in Costa Rica, so everybody wants to watch us.” The university even utilizes the squad as a selling point by having them perform at publicity presentations.
Although it’s building a fan base and gaining momentum, cheer is still fighting for the spotlight in Costa Rica. “Unfortunately, there are two sports here—soccer and the rest,” says UACA athlete Danilo Herrera. “This makes it very hard for a sport other than soccer to grow and become popular, but cheerleading is growing more than any other sport here that I’m aware of.”
That’s surprising considering that Coach Siles says cheer has been around for 25 years and there are now more than 100 teams in Costa Rica, and with the UACA squad putting on exhibition performances in countries like Guatemala, Puerto Rico, Panama and Nicaragua, they’re certainly doing their part to put cheer on the Latin American map. But some athletes believe that people just don’t get it yet. “People outside cheerleading have the wrong idea of what it is,” says Ana Lucía. That’s where the States come in.
The United States of Cheer
The UACA athletes, including Coach Siles, cite the U.S. as their biggest influence. They even admit to benefiting more from NCA College Nationals than competitions in their own country, as it’s more of a challenge. “It’s my favorite [event] because you can see and compete with the best teams in the U.S., and it’s a very good learning experience for any cheerleader,” says Ana Lucía. “Our competitive level [in Costa Rica] isn’t very high, so teams don’t grow and improve as fast as American teams. Here, you don’t have to be perfect or have amazing skills to win.”
As wonderful as that is to hear, UACA is being a bit modest (which is yet another reason to [ital: totally] heart them). They forget that we witnessed their routine, including the inventive pyramids that encouraged us to chase them down in the first place. These athletes can definitely hold their own in the midst of experienced champs like Hawaii Pacific University, who beat them for first place in Cheer Division II by less than one point. “It’s so funny to hear the announcer say, ‘Universidad Autónoma de Centro América,’” says Danilo. “It makes everyone turn and see who he’s talking about, and when they see us, we’re better than they expect.”
UACA may not have won, but coming in second when their country has limited cheer resources and where the skills aren’t typically as fierce proves just how hard they push themselves. That’s a victory in itself. “I think [College Nationals] is why we train so hard and why we always want to learn new things,” says Ana Lucía. “When we go there, we get to know the teams that motivate us to be better, and that’s the best part for me.”
Given that a crucial part of the score sheet involves tumbling, their second-place win is even more impressive. “Gymnastics isn’t very big in CR,” says Ana Lucía. “People do learn a lot when they get into cheerleading, but it’s very different when someone starts learning to tumble when they’re 18 than a gymnast who starts at 4.”
Perhaps the reason UACA’s able to hold their own on our turf is because they consistently keep up with U.S. cheer trends via online videos and, when they can afford it, working with U.S. choreographers and coaches. Being a UACA cheerleader has become a privilege. “Our team is known for its individuality,” says Danilo. “Everyone in CR wants to be in UACA because they know if they’re [on our team], it’s because they stood apart from the rest. We’re known to be one step ahead in difficulty at a national level.” As respected as the program is though, being a UACA cheerleader isn’t easy.
The Price of Success
Although UACA is one of the few Costa Rican institutions that support their cheer programs, this stellar squad gets next to nothing in funding, and cheer across the country has limited supplies, with many teams not even having mats to practice on safely. Luckily, the team at UACA does have a practice space provided by the university, but if they want to compete (which is what they live for), they’re on their own.
But that doesn’t stop these dedicated athletes from getting where they want to be. “These people really love to cheer for UACA, even though they have to pay to practice and compete,” says Coach Siles. “But they’re happy to do it. There’s an incredible feeling of teamwork and family here.” Because of its hardcore fundraising efforts, UACA is the only cheer squad in Costa Rica who’s able to compete in the States at the national level, though they haven’t been fortunate enough to make it each and every year.
If you weren’t already rooting for this squad, you’re about to. Despite having their own financial problems, the UACA cheerleaders make sure to help others in need. Since they can’t make monetary donations, they donate their time and fundraising skills instead. “Last year on Christmas we collected presents and threw a party for children with terminal cancer,” says Ana Lucía.
And on top of practice, fundraising and community service, these cheerleaders are still full-time college students. “In the morning or afternoon I go to school, and when I’m not in class I study and do all my school work so my nights are free for cheerleading,” says Ana Lucía. “I try to get good grades, especially the first four months of the year so I can go to NCA College Nationals without worrying about school, since the dates are always the same as my finals.” And you thought [ital: you] were hardcore.
The Love That Binds Us
Despite their differences, U.S. and international teams share one major thing: Regardless of competitive success, they do it all for the love of cheer and the unbreakable friendships they form. “[My favorite part is] the peace the team brings me,” says Danilo. “Both the team and the university are very supportive and make me feel like I’m in a bigger family.”
Ana Lucía adds: “I think every person should have a sport they love. I’ve learned so much about people and how to work with them and be a team. I do well in school just so I can cheer. If I could be a cheerleader all my life and never retire, I would.”