From 6 a.m. workouts to 11-hour football game days, the UA Cheerleaders and Mascots program takes its dedication to a whole other level. While many spend their college careers overwhelmed by academic work and involvement, these Wildcats have courtside seats to every basketball game and are on the football field to inspire their teams to bear down.
“It was just something totally new,” Arizona junior cheerleader Brett Hill said. “There’s nothing natural about putting a girl above your head and holding her there with one arm and her flipping and spinning above your head. It was just a whole new sport and world to learn.”
From the desperation catch against California in football to the overtime game against Gonzaga in McKale Center, Arizona’s cheerleading has been there through it all and has managed to give back to the Tucson community along the way.
“I do it because I’m never going to get to do this again,” Hill said. “I’m going to remember this for the rest of my life and that’s motivation enough to do it for your teammates and to do it for the experience and the adventure.”
The team was looking to make more of an impact in the direction of helping the community.
“Being able to see the impact we are having on the community ... and being able to give that back is just an incredible feeling,” Hill said.
The team was involved in Special Olympics Arizona and the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
“Having someone that goes through so much, having a kid with one leg and Down syndrome that is beyond excited to see you, there’s just no way to put it into words,” Hill said. “It makes their whole day and world for them to see us ... That means the world to me.”
When attending the Southern Arizona Breakfast With Champions event, the entire team met the Special Olympics Arizona United Sports Athlete of the Year Alan Barberi, who was honored at the event.
Barberi was born with spina bifida—a birth defect in the spinal cord—and his family was told he would never be able to walk. During his high school graduation, he was able to walk without his wheel chair to receive his diploma.
Although Alan had requested the UA cheer team to sign his ball, the team asked for him to sign theirs.
“He’s just a super inspiration going from wheelchair to walking,” Hill said.
There’s something magical about seeing the face of Tucson and the UA in Wilbur. Sophomore cheerleader Claudia Nguyen recounted a time during one Bear Down Friday where a little boy was scared of the famous face.
“As a kid, I would be scared of Wilbur, too, because he’s just a big cartoon character walking around campus,” Nguyen said. “As soon as he realized it was Wilbur and Wilma at the same time, his tears of terror changed into tears of happiness. I don’t think he will ever forget that moment, either.”
Nguyen also spoke of visiting a sick teenager in the hospital with a few of her teammates and Wilbur. She said the smiles at Wilbur were the biggest she had seen in a very long time.
“They couldn’t stop thanking us, and I don’t think people should be thanking us,” Nguyen said. “That’s what we are there to do; we are there to put pride into people, even when they are at their lowest. That’s probably the best thing ever.”
It’s an understatement that this team has become a family.
“As any team is, we are a family [and] we have ups and downs,” Hill said. “At the end of the day, we support each other, we talk about it, we hang out, we laugh. You tell yourself that we only have four years to do this really incredible journey—that’s your motivation. My best friends are on the team and they are my family.”
Nguyen echoed Hill’s point about being a family, highlighting one of the team’s mottos: “One nation, under squad.”
“Anywhere we perform, there … are so many eyes on us,” Nguyen said. “We do it and we get through it because we do it together. Honestly, without my team, I wouldn’t even know what to do. It’s exactly like a second family.”