Maddie Albert, top, runs through a drill with the support of her teammates drung a recent practice at Element All Stars gym in Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
LEWISTON — As the sport of cheerleading has grown, so too has the program at Element All Stars gym in Lewiston.
So much so that the program will be moving into a new (for them) facility in a few weeks because, according to owner Andrea Keneborus, they are “running out of space.”
“That was my goal, and when I did take over the business, I was like, we just need, in order to grow this business, we need our own location,” said Keneborus, who took over the former Planet Cheer program in 2016, two years after Matthew Hanley established Element All-Stars as Planet Cheer’s owners were set to close the business to focus on family.
Keneborus’ cheering background goes farther back than she cares to admit. She cheered at Leavitt High School where she was an NCA All-American and then competed at Wayland Baptist University in Texas. Then came rec and high school cheering jobs before starting a family. Her daughters eventually got into cheering and when they grew a passion for the sport they found Planet Cheer.
That’s a big reason Keneborus took over the business. It’s been a successful endeavor ever since, and a bigger facility is just the next step in that metaphorical and physical growth.
“Since becoming Element we have just blown up,” tumbling instructor Cat Haley said. “Our teams have never been this competitive in all of the time that I have been a part of this program. We have brought in some of the best people in the industry to try to make this program what it is.”
Haley was one of the first athletes to jump on board with Planet Cheer in 2003. Her own journey took her from high school to college to the Stingray Allstars team in Georgia, where she won a world championship in 2013 a year after moving on from Planet Cheer. She said she thought she would stay with the Stingrays, but she returned home in 2016 and joined on with Keneborus and Element.
Since then she’s worked with the head coach of Element’s high-travel program, Kassandra Bowen, who has been with Planet Cheer and Element since 2009.
Bowen, too, has seen first-hand the program blow up, as Haley put it.
“It’s crazy to me that little kids that I’ve had since they were, some of them 4 years old, now are competing on this giant world stage,” Bowen said. “It’s breath-taking to see.”
The program has had teams win national championships, and two years ago got its first two bids to The Summit, a cheering competition at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando that Keneborus called “basically the Super Bowl of cheerleading.”
Element sent four teams to The Summit last year, and this year have already received three bids and are waiting on another one. This is the first year that Element has received a bid in the Division 2 competition.
Keneborus said only five percent of all cheering teams get invited to The Summit.
“The first year that we got a Summit bid, I bawled my eyes out, and I’m not an emotional person,” Bowen said. “And seeing that we could compete with that level of teams, it’s like everything that I have sacrificed, and everything these kids have sacrificed, was worth it.”
The success and growth of the program has made Haley’s move back worth it as well.
“Ever since moving home, I haven’t looked back. This program has taken every aspect of this sport seriously, and it truly shows because our teams go to competitions and people are looking to watch us,” Haley said.
“It’s crazy to see how much these kids work, and how much it pays off,” Bowen said. “We walk into competitions now and people kind of know who we are, and it’s scary, but it’s also good to know that what we’re doing is making a difference and people actually notice what we’re doing.”
The success of the high-travel program has helped fuel the growth of Element as a whole. Keneborus said the first goal when taking over was “basically to have a program for every kid and family that is looking for a program.”
That meant providing a lower-cost alternative to the high-travel program. When she took over there was also a low-travel, half-season program (and still is), but Keneborus said prospective cheer families were still looking for more.
“People were basically knocking down our doors about starting a recreation program, a learn-to-cheer, all of that,” she said.
So Element this year added a rec program, with 87 new participants on board, to go along with the two low-travel (prep) teams and four high-travel teams.
And yet there’s still room for more.
“Right now we don’t have as much space as we need, we can’t have as many teams as we want,” Bowen said.
In their current location on Westminster Street, the Element teams are confined to a “small room,” as Bowen called it. It consists of seven cheering panels, while competitions use nine such mats.
The new facility in a space behind Marden’s on Main Street will give the Element teams the space they need.
“To have the big floor, all the equipment, state-of-the art lights, sounds, everything, it’s just going to make it that much more of a competition feel at all times for them, so when we get to those big events, it’s second nature and they don’t even think about it,” Bowen said.
“The first time I walked into the facility, when nothing was even worked on yet, I came home and I cried because I knew that all the hard work, and all the passion, and all of this time that this program has put in has finally paid off, and we can finally provide our athletes with a facility that they can continue to grow at, and our program can continue to make an impact in the community of these young kids’ lives,” Haley said.
Element’s reach stretches far beyond Lewiston, however. The program has kids from as far north as Bangor and the Medomak Valley and as south as Scarborough and even Eliot. It has pulled in athletes from the Oxford Hills area and from several communities in Androscoggin County.
“We have people coming from all over the state to be a part of this program because they truly want to be a part of the best,” Haley said.
It’s all a far cry from when Haley joined the gym in its former identity, back when she said she was one of just 27 kids.
“I have to say, I don’t even recognize this program from what it used to be,” Haley said. “When we started, we were really a small gym in Maine, and although we are still considered small I hate to refer to this gym as a small gym because when I come in here I know it’s a powerhouse.”
Part of that can be attributed to the vision Keneborus had when taking over.
“She is totally on board with — she trusts her coaches, she trusts the staff. She wants what’s best for, not only her kids and her family, but the entire Element family,” Bowen said. “She’s taken on a lot to build this new facility — personally, financially, everything. So her taking on that for us is going to make this program just so much more than it already is.”
“It’s definitely been a challenge,” Keneborus said, “but I’m very excited with our new venture, our new location.”
Kylie Danforth and Kenzie Grenier pause at the start pf the cheering routine for the musical prompt during cheering practice at the Element All Stars gym in Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)Cheering practice at Element All Stars gym in Lewiston. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)Kelsea Anderson, center, shares a laugh with her teammates during a break during practice at Element All Stars gym in Lewiston.(Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)Bailey Whitcomb, left, helps hold up a teammate during cheering practice Element All Stars gym in Lewiston recently. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)