LEWISTON – Cat Haley heard the first recruiting pitch to become a cheerleader when she was six, and let’s just say it didn’t resonate.
“I actually didn’t like it at first, because I wasn’t really girlie,” said Haley, now 13 and an eighth-grader at Minot Consolidated School. “I was like, ‘Aw, cheering? That’s kind of weird.’ But my cousin actually got me into it. We were very close, and when she started doing it, I said I’d give it a try.”
The self-professed tomboy has tumbled her way to heights that few junior high athletes from Maine will ever touch in a traditional team sport. Haley isn’t merely the best cheerleader in her Planet Cheer gymnasium. She leads the nation.
Haley competed in the “America’s Top Cheerleader” competition May 31 and June 1 in Orlando, Fla. In the Junior Level 5 (ages 12-15) bracket, Haley was named top jumper, tumbler and overall cheerleader.
She returned home with three trophies nearly as tall as her own diminutive, five-foot frame, not to mention jackets, T-shirts, patches, medals and a million memories.
“I looked at the girls I was competing against, and I’ve seen their teams before, so I didn’t expect to win anything,” Haley said. “I’m pretty proud of myself to represent my gym and the state of Maine.”
An only child with a semi-retired stock car driver dad, Haley also grew up playing baseball, basketball and soccer in grade school. Cheering won out.
In third grade, Haley progressed from a recreational program in Poland to Planet Cheer, the all-star gymnasium launched by sisters Deneka Deletetsky and Tiffany Fortier.
The road to national notoriety also detoured through Salem, N.H. There, Haley practiced and competed last season with Celebrity Cheer, one of the largest gyms in New England.
“Celebrity is probably the best gym in New England,” said Haley’s mother, Sandra. “They put her in a very prominent spot on the floor. They wanted her badly. So we did what we could, and Planet Cheer kicked in, also. They gave us their blessing because they didn’t have a Level 5 team for her.”
Haley’s growth as a cheerleader actually exceeded Planet Cheer’s expansion, for a while. She has performed Level 6 stunts in competition, putting her in a category with college cheerleaders.
Next year, Planet Cheer will share a Level 5 team with a gym in Westbrook, significantly cutting down on Sandra and Bruce Haley’s drive time. But everyone involved says the financial and time investments have been worth it to see Haley shine against her peers from around the country. Cheerleaders from Florida, Alabama, Kentucky, Texas, Georgia, Massachusetts and Utah were represented in Orlando.
“It was mainly individuals and stunt groups. They judge how solid you are, how difficult (your stunts) are, your creativity, how flexible you are,” Haley said.
Haley developed her acrobatic skills under the tutelage of Don White at Andy Valley School of Gymnastics.
Matt Hanley now teaches gymnastics at Planet Cheer, with Deletetsky and Fortier adding their championship choreography and instruction.
“They’re awesome. My coaches, if we’re having a bad day, they can tell, so they won’t push us as much. But they also push us to the point where it’s good,” Haley said.
Planet Cheer traveled to national competitions at Hershey Park in Pennsylvania, Niagara Falls, New Jersey and Rhode Island during the school year. In all, Haley was part of 10 national titles.
As part of three travel teams, Haley practiced or competed six days a week throughout the school year.
“Actually we took one week off and I thought I was going to die without it,” said Haley. “I wasn’t fun. I didn’t like it at all.”
Haley hasn’t yet finished junior high, but she already sees cheerleading opening doors beyond high school.
After seeing the University of Louisville compete in an NCAA tournament, Haley knows she wants to attend school where the grass is blue.
“I don’t really know what they have for school. I know they’re a good school, but I watched them cheer on TV before and they’re incredible. I just want to go to a school like that,” she said.
Better keep those options open. Now that Haley is a national champion, she’s bound to be on a few recruiters’ wish lists. And not just her cousin’s.