From a simple front somersault to a hitch pyramid, competitive cheerleading requires physical strength, flexibility and focus. Being involved in cheerleading for 40 years, Linda Purnell said it’s time the boys and girls of Liberty County get their opportunity to compete in the sport that has taught her some important life lessons.
Purnell is the director and certified trainer for the newly formed Inspiration Cheerleading Academy. Her goal is to establish a professional National Cheerleaders Association sanctioned squad of competitors.
"I started when I was 5," Purnell said. "I started at the recreation department and went all the way up through elementary, middle school, high school then college."
Purnell even tried out for the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, but she ended up enlisting in the military. "When I was younger and because of what was instilled in me ... I felt I wanted to do unto others," she said. "I made a vow to God and as time went on I became active in the community on base and became a volunteer cheerleading coach on base. Everywhere I’ve been stationed I’ve always been a cheerleading coach."
The ICA group was born from the Inspiration Dance Studios, which used to be on Highway 196. Former dance studio owner Juanita Lowery closed shop when she decided to finish her master’s degree in performing arts. Lowery, who is working on her thesis at SCAD, said she decided she wanted to collaborate with Purnell and re-open the studio to foster creativity in children. It was one of the reasons she was inspired to go back to school.
She said incorporating dance choreography into the cheerleading routines is exciting.
"The average squad just comes with a cheerleading background but we are adding a professional dance background to it so it’s
going to be a little more creative," Lowery said.
Purnell said she and her recruits spent most of the summer attending their first ICA cheerleading camp. Purnell not only coaches — she is part of the team. Known as the ICA Lions, the squad of five cheerleaders range in age from 10 to 45–years old.
"The camp was about teaching them and training them to lead," Purnell said. "We included conditioning, muscle strengthening, flexibility, endurance, cardio work and cheering, splits, stops, tumbling and dance. Competing is so stiff you have to be well rounded. They are going to be student athletes so it’s also about their education. Their grades and education are very important because with cheerleading being a sport you can get a full ride scholarship."
On Friday her ICA Lions and the cheerleading squad from Lewis Frasier Middle School held an exhibition for family members and friends behind the VFW Post on Highway 196, the site of their current training grounds. But Lowery and Purnell are looking to open a new studio.
"When we closed our studio we had 65 students," Lowery said. "We are looking to open within the next year and be able to house and educate 100-200 students in different genres. Our goal is to do after school programs and summer programs and provide an educational environment where they can learn an art form."
Purnell said the cheerleading academy will teach young ladies and men how to cheer, the basics of cheerleading, how build self confidence, character and self esteem.
"And all the life lessons that they are going to need to be successful in life," Purnell said.
"The whole idea is to give the children in this area the opportunity to compete against children from the big cities when they go to college," Lowery added. "Georgia Southern University has a renowned performing arts and cheerleading program. We have SCAD in the area. We have several different colleges that have performing arts, cheerleading and dancers. These schools are known for that. And when our children come out of Liberty County they really can’t compete."
Purnell and Lowery hope their group is among the first to receive scholarships in cheerleading and performing arts.
"I didn’t get into cheerleading until my daughter got into cheerleading," Cassandra Cruz, the cheerleading coach at LFMS said. "I didn’t realize cheerleading was so much work. It’s just like any other sport. You have to condition, build up the endurance and increase their strength. They have to be able to lift the girls, do jumps and splits, acrobatics and be able to cheer at the same time."
Its Cruz’s first year coaching at LFMS. Last season she coached a squad from Walford Middle School in Long County where she took the squad to their first three professional meets.
"I’ve learned a lot in the last 2 years," Cruz said. "The main thing is for them to learn how to work together and be there for their team and learn to be there for each other. The only thing that is going to make the squad better is them realizing they are one unit."
Purnell said she plans to hold tryouts to get more people involved in the ICA. She is looking to finalize a date but knows it will be toward the end of August.
"I would tell them to come to my squad and try it," Purnell said about people who may not think of cheerleading as a sport. Cruz and Lowery echoed her sentiment.
"The idea is to take that gap between the time where the kids are out of school but the parents are still at work," Lowery said about their program. "Take those 2-3 hours and train, educate and inspire these kids for a lifetime. They may not do this as their career however it’s an inspiration in their life forever."