OAKLAND, ME- NOVEMBER 8: Messalonskee High School student Kaitlyn Berthiaume is the school’s sole cheerleader. Berthiaume is at practice at the Oakland school gymnasium on Thursday, November 8, 2018. (Staff Photo by David Leaming/Staff Photographer)
OAKLAND — Shaking visibly and on the verge of tears, Kaitlyn Berthiaume did what came naturally. She found her mom.
“I have no idea how I did it,” the Messalonskee High School senior said. “I honestly have no idea. I guess I love the sport so much I was willing to stick with it no matter what. I just sucked it up and went out there and did it anyway.”
Berthiaume wasn’t only a member of the Messalonskee cheerleading team this fall; Berthiaume was the cheerleading team at Messalonskee. The 18-year-old from Oakland garnered attention locally and nationally for her inspiring story, as unique as it is unlikely.
In a sport featuring camaraderie, teamwork and precise synchronization of specific move sets, Berthiaume enjoyed none of those things. Instead, she was the lone participant in cheerleading at Messalonskee for the entire fall season, standing alone in full uniform and belting out the words and actions of dozens of cheers at each Messalonskee varsity football game in September and October.
She was, understandably, nervous — particularly on the opening night of the season in Augusta, standing in front of hundreds of spectators — when the Eagles played at Cony High School.
“At first nobody really noticed me. I got to the first game and people were like, ‘Wait a minute. She wasn’t kidding; there’s only one of them.’” Berthiaume said. “I was really nervous. I’d stand there and my coach would say, ‘Go do a cheer.’ I was like, ‘I’m scared,’ but she said, ‘Go do one.’”
No kind of visualization — like imagining empty bleachers or pretending nobody was watching — would work for Berthiaume.
“I am not the person that can imagine something. I see it, and I cannot trick my mind that it’s not happening,” she said. “I know it’s happening. I would stare at my mom a lot when I got really nervous. I would stare at my mom or my best friend and not look at anyone else.”
Though Messalonskee’s cheering numbers were down a bit this fall, Berthiaume wasn’t the only person who showed up for the first day of preseason practices in August. A half-dozen girls tried out for the team — half of whom were academically ineligible and the other half of whom decided that it would require more effort than they’d hoped, according to Messalonskee’s first-year head coach Mila Couture.
That left only Berthiaume, who has been a member of the school’s cheer team since her freshman year — during both the fall and winter seasons. So Couture was the coach of a team of one, and Berthiaume practiced five to six days per week, mornings and evenings.
“Katie decided, a little bit reluctantly and with some encouragement, that she still wanted to do it,” Couture said. “The biggest thing for us as coaches was just keeping her spirits up so it wasn’t so nerve-wracking for her.”
The high school environment can be cruel, and Berthiaume did hear a few snide comments from the Messalonskee student body. One of the school’s football players, whom she would not identify, called her “annoying.” The other negative attention came from a few social media commenters in other parts of the country who called what she was doing “stupid,” she said.
Largely, though, Berthiaume and the staff at Messalonskee said the support for her one-person team was better than anyone could have imagined.
“I would say that 99.5 percent of what I heard was positive about Kaitlyn,” Messalonskee athletic director Chad Foye said. “Things like, ‘It takes a lot of guts do do what she’s doing.’ That’s the stuff I heard 10 times more than the negative. It’s great what she’s doing, how she stuck with it. It was something nobody wanted to do or couldn’t do because of other commitments, but she went out there and stuck with it.
“That’s pretty impressive.”
Berthiaume received packages of encouragement in the mail from high school teams in Florida and from the George Washington University cheer team. Even the New England Patriots cheerleaders contacted her via Instagram to thank her for being an inspiration, Berthiaume said.
Earlier this month, Berthiaume was invited to a statewide cheer coaches meeting, where she was told that she would be heading to Walt Disney World in Florida in February four a four-day stay as a VIP guest of the National Cheerleading Association at a national competition.
“It’s been beneficial for Katie, but also for our youth,” said Annie Dobos, president of Messalonskee Youth Cheering. “Yeah, she’s the only one — but she has the power, will and determination to do something she loves and stand out there by herself and really own it.”
Once a week, middle school cheerleaders would join Berthiaume at practice. Each Wednesday, instead of stretching, running, working out and practicing moves on her own, Berthiaume would get the chance to do the same with the future of the sport at Messalonskee.
“It was nice to have somebody to talk to,” Berthiaume said.
She likely won’t have to worry about that in the winter. Couture said that she had 15 students attend an informational meeting about the winter cheering season recently, more than enough for Messalonskee to field a full team and compete in conference and regional meets in January.
“I think others have seen what she’s done,” Couture said. “I’ve seen tremendous growth in her as a person, in her confidence. She’s truly become the cheerleader for us.”
With more than 50 participants in the youth program at Messalonskee, spread from grades pre-kindergarten through eight, the future appears stable for the school’s cheer team.
Dobos sees the significance beyond Berthiaume’s one-woman act becoming just a quirky human interest story.
“I tell my younger athletes constantly that one person can make a difference,” Dobos said. “We’re looking at them on a team of 10 to 15 athletes, but I still let them know that every one of them is significant. Whether you’re on a whole team or one person on a team, everybody has a role and you are important.”
Berthiaume is looking ahead to the winter season and having teammates again, for certain. She misses being able to do stunts — the flips and leaps and tosses into the air that mark cheerleading routines — and considers herself a “flyer” first. She’d like to have others to “giggle with” about the things you can bond over only with peers.
And while she hesitates before affirming that she gladly would endure another season as a single cheerleader on a team, she does know one thing.
“I always knew I was going to do it. Deep down inside, I knew it, even if it was just me,” Berthiaume said. “It was definitely hard. I remember my freshman year, I was this little shy thing and I kept to myself and my friends. Now I’m out here doing this by myself.
“This was about finding myself and not allowing people to drag me down.”
Instead, she’s hoping people are flinging her into the air this winter.