Chelsea Werner could barely stand. Four hours of tumbling had taken its toll.
She had arrived at a clinic at Quinnipiac University in September eager to prove she belonged among the athletes vying for a spot on the acrobatics and tumbling team, a Division I program. Werner, a Shoreham-Wading River senior, had introduced herself to the team’s coach through email and showcased her skills through videos. But this was the first opportunity to perform in person.
“It was so hard,” said Werner, the captain of Shoreham’s varsity cheerleading team. “I couldn’t get up the next day. My legs were giving out as I was leaving.”
The grueling routine, a test of her endurance and strength, was well worth it in the end. Last month, during the early signing period, Werner made history by becoming the first Shoreham athlete to sign a letter of intent to receive a scholarship for acrobatics and tumbling — a new, unique sport that combines the skills of gymnastics with the artistry of competitive cheerleading. In the fall, Werner will attend Quinnipiac, one of 13 schools that currently offers acrobatics and tumbling while competing under the governing body called the National Collegiate Stunts and Tumbling Association. The schools range from Division I programs like the University of Oregon to Division III like Adrian College.
“Within the team the kids look up to her because she’s doing something that no one’s ever done before,” said Shoreham’s cheerleading coach, Tiffany Pelczar.
Werner stands a hair over 5-foot-1, with broad shoulders and strong legs. She looks every bit like a gymnast. For most of her life, she was. Since her freshman year at Shoreham, Werner has been on the sidelines of football and basketball games as a cheerleader flashing a bright smile. She quickly stood out as one of the team’s best athletes.
“She’s my muscle,” Pelczar said. “Small, but lots of muscle.”
It’s a common transition for gymnasts to enter cheerleading, a growing sport that requires many of the same tumbling skills at the competitive level.
For Werner, the jump was somewhat unexpected.
“The [gymnastics] team I was on hated cheerleaders,” Werner said. “We thought they were so bad.”
Werner excelled in gymnastics, reaching Level 9 in middle school before an injury and surgery slowed down her path. From seventh grade until ninth, she competed in diving, another sport that requires similar athleticism.
“Ever since I was little, my dad would be like, if you ever stop gymnastics you’ll do diving,” Werner said.
In ninth grade she opted to give cheerleading a try and quickly fell in love.
Pelczar, a former Riverhead High School cheerleader who also cheered at Hofstra University, was beginning her first year as Shoreham’s coach when Werner joined the team.
She was overjoyed at the sight of a talented gymnast on the roster.
“I was like, ‘Where did you come from? Bring more!’ ” Pelczar recalled.
Gymnastics has a long history at Shoreham-Wading River. The school had a varsity team until about eight years ago, when budget cuts ended the program. Still, students have excelled at nearby gymnastic clubs. Two recent graduates compete at Division I programs: Madison Dwyer (’15) at William & Mary and Cami Drouin-Allaire (’14) at George Washington.
Until recently, the competition aspect of cheerleading never got off the ground at Shoreham. Even now, the program has only a varsity team and no JV or middle school team.
In the last few years, that program has been on a steady climb. The number of girls coming out for the team continues to increase. For this winter season, Pelczar said 26 girls tried out, where in the past fielding a 12-girl team was problematic. And the kids on the team can execute more advanced stunts sooner, she said.
“Compared to where we started it’s like night and day,” she said.
The Wildcats begin their competitive season in the winter. This year will be unlike any in the past. For the first time, the team will compete in competitions run by the New York State Public High School Athletic Association after cheerleading was approved to be recognized as a sport last year.
In many ways, Werner is the face of the Wildcats’ arrival into competitive cheerleading.
A captain since her junior year, Werner leads the team not only with her skill on the mat, but through her positive outlook.
“There are days I know that kids don’t want to be here,” Pelczar said. “I never really see that from her at all. She’s really good at getting people to go further.”
Werner started cheerleading as a flyer — the girls who are tossed into the air — before transitioning to a side base and now a main base this season. Her strongest skill is tumbling, she said.
“There’s actually things she’s not allowed to do on a high school team that I know she can do,” she said. “You can’t do any double twisting skills and I know she can do that. There are some front tumbling skills you’re not allowed to do in high school cheerleading and I know she can.”
That versatility helped land her a spot on the Quinnipiac team.
Mary Ann Powers, head coach of acrobatics and tumbling at Quinnipiac, said she expects Werner to be a “big impact player.”
“I plan on multitasking her,” Powers said. “She’s pretty versatile. I’m hoping to use her in both tosses, acro and in tumbling rounds.”
The acrobatics and tumbling competitions, which started in 2011, feature six events — compulsories, acro, pyramid, toss, tumbling and team event. Teams can score up to 300 points.
There’s no vocal aspect to the events like in competitive cheerleading. The team’s uniforms more resemble that of a volleyball team than cheerleaders.
The fast-paced competitions, which even include a 15-minute halftime, have quickly become premier events at Quinnipiac.
“It’s exploding,” Powers said. “Girls love to do this sport. You have a really cool recruiting pool. I can recruit kids who are good in diving, good in acrobatics, good in gymnastics, good in competitive cheer, good in high school cheer, good in weightlifting.”
Powers recently signed 12 students for next year’s team, including Werner, while having to deny about 250, she said.
In addition to cheering at Shoreham, Werner competed on all-star travel teams, starting at Gravity Cheer in Holbrook. She spent two years on the Level 5 Island Xtreme cheerleading team, traveling an hour to Plainview for practices. Level 5 represented the highest competition in competitive cheerleading for girls under 18.
The all-star experience made a big difference in Werner, Pelczar said. Her skill set improved, but so, too, did her confidence.
“They do a lot of big performances,” she said. “They go to huge competitions. It’s a little different than high school cheer. But I could tell that kind of helped mold her a little bit.”
At the end of the clinic at Quinnipiac, Werner said she was nervous and unsure of how well she performed compared to the many other girls.
Her soon-to-be coach, though, had seen exactly what she needed.
“She’s very smart, she’s very competitive, she’s very diligent,” Powers said. “She’s got what it takes.”