About 3,800 young cheerleaders representing 93 teams from across the South rolled, flipped and yelled their way into Chattanooga on Friday to prepare for one of the biggest cheerleading competitions of the year.
Today, cheer teams will perform routines they've been practicing for months in front of a projected 7,600 less-professional but equally enthusiastic cheering parents and friends.
"We're pros, definitely," said Marloe Williams, mother of a nine-year veteran Savannah, Ga., cheerleader.
Gabrielle D'Alessandro, 12, said she was ready for the two 12-hour days of competition ahead of her, and that she'd been practicing her routine since August.
"It's intense," she said "We're the highest level, and it's tough."
D'Alessandro and her teammates on Cheer Savannah said they have it particularly hard after they lost a member to an injury in November, requiring them to tap an older girl from another squad and enter the open division.
"It's harder because it's open and boys can be on the teams, and we don't have any boys," she said.
• What: Athletic National Championship cheer and dance competition
• When: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. today and Sunday
• Where: Chattanooga Convention Center, 1 Carter Plaza
• Admission: $15 adults; $10 ages 5-10 per day; two-day pass $25 adults, $20 children
• Website: www.athleticchampionships.com
The six-year cheerleader said although a few of her teammates have been injured, and she's had her fair share of falls, she not afraid of getting hurt.
"I'm a flier, and you have to go in the air and they hold you on one foot and you pull tricks," she said. "If they drop you it can be scary and you don't wanna do it again, but you do it anyway because you know you can trust them."
Brian Elza, brand manager of the Athletic National Championship, said he keeps coming back to Chattanooga Convention Center to host one of the year's "marquee events" because of the city's central location within the South.
There are a huge number of teams within a seven-hour drive of the city, he said, and "it's harder to convince teams from Kentucky or Ohio to come all the way to Atlanta."
This year should be particularly worth the drive. The company hired a new production team, and where there was once a cloth backdrop there are now TV screens, flashing lights and lasers.
"Lots of the same effects that you'd see at the VMAs or 'America's Got Talent,'" he said.
But location isn't the only reason the competition keeps returning to Chattanooga. Elza said each year, the city takes great care of competitors.