They stood stiff and still on the stage, the girls in the black-and-purple skirts. Then the electronic mix bumped from the speakers inside Exhibit Hall A, and the lights changed colors, and the parents on the front row cheered, and the girls backflipped all at once, starting in a circle at the center and each landing a few feet away, like a flower blooming in a second.
The 15-girl team from RAH! Spirit, small seniors division, level four, commanded the crowd's attention with spins, splits and cartwheels -- but for only about 2-1/2 minutes. That's the time limit at competitions like the National Cheerleading Championship, held inside the Chattanooga Convention Center on Saturday and again today.
But 150 seconds seems quick only if you're watching, not doing.
After drilling their routine down for about five months, Chelsea Jackson said the biggest challenge for her and her teammates is endurance. On stage, it seems as if the clock can't run much slower.
But Chelsea, a 15-year-old sophomore from Girls Preparatory School, loves those slow seconds.
"I don't even know how to describe it," she said. "It's like you're in a whole other world."
Chelsea's team was one of more than 100 who sprinkled the convention center with glitter Saturday at the competition, organized by Athletic Championships of Knoxville. Teams mostly came from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee, with one exception: Diamond High School from Anchorage, Alaska.
Between the 5,000 athletes and their families, the Chattanooga Area Convention & Visitor's Bureau estimates that 14,000 people flooded the city this weekend for the event.
Inside the convention center, vendors sold cheerleader T-shirts and cheerleader picture frames and cheerleader teddy bears. Some cheerleaders sat on the floor, waiting with their parents. Some cheerleaders found and hugged their friends, who are also cheerleaders. Some cheerleaders held hands with their boyfriends, who agreed to spend their Saturday afternoon in such a setting because their girlfriends are cheerleaders.
The competition continues at 8 a.m. today, same as on Saturday.
That's what time Chelsea and her teammates had to arrive, even though they weren't taking the stage for another eight hours. RAH! Spirit is based in eastern Chattanooga, and it has several teams in different divisions.
Retha Jackson, Chelsea's grandmother, said families are expected to stay at competitions all day to cheer on other RAH! Spirit teams. It can make for a long day.
"I've been through the parent stuff before," she said. I've gone to all the sports games and all the other events. I love it, of course. But that's because the kids love it."
Wearing blue jeans and an Affliction hoodie, Jason Shell sat on the floor next to Retha Jackson. Shell's daughter is on the team with Chelsea. He's a self-described "gearhead," spending his free time building cars and selling them. A couple of them have even made it into automobile magazine spreads.
"This was all new to me," he said of cheerleading. "I had a brother growing up."
Sure, he saw cheerleading while flipping through ESPN, and his wife told him a little about the competitions. But he didn't understand how many cheerleaders could fit into one room until going to a show in Nashville.
He said he gets a little tired of cheerleading after about the third all-day event of the year.
But seeing his daughter dance and leap and flip is actually pretty cool, he admits.
"When you get near the stage and see them all in sync," he said, "it really is neat."
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