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Cover Story

How the Plano Panthers Cheer Squad Became World Champions

Lots of hard work, the perfect red bows, and because, in their own words, they are “bad-ass bitches.”
photography by Elizabeth Lavin

Lynn Hailstone’s house in rural McKinney was the perfect place to throw a slumber party for 26 teenage girls. At the end of a long gravel driveway, tucked behind a stand of trees that shields it from a county road, the more than 8,000-square-foot house and its amoeba-shaped pool sit on 25 acres. There is a barn and, beyond that, a hayfield.

The girls were all Panthers, a cheerleading squad based out of a private training facility called Cheer Athletics. (It moved from its Garland facility to Plano this April 1.) At the time, in July 2011, they were the reigning world champions of competitive cheerleading. The Panthers had just taken on 15 new girls, though, so their moms thought that a night together at the Hailstone house would help the girls bond before the new season began.

Scherry Armstrong was the squad’s longtime head cheer mom. Her daughter is Shelby. Around 11 pm, Scherry was called into the media room so the girls could show her how they were making each other pass out for fun. Instead of watching Bring It On: All or Nothing, they were taking turns holding their breath, crossing their arms, and having another girl inhibit their ability to breathe by pushing them against a wall. One girl had fainted and hit her head on the edge of a doorway. Hailstone suggested that the girls do something that killed fewer brain cells, maybe light fireworks by the pool.

Ignoring a statewide burn ban and the fact that Texas was in the middle of a crippling drought that had contributed to catastrophic wildfires, the girls grabbed matches and went outside. The first few ballpark-proportioned explosions were lovely. The girls posted pictures on Twitter. But before long most of them grew bored and went inside to put on bikinis.

Shelby, 17, and Victoria Swain, 18, were the oldest girls on the squad. They were also both a little left of the sweet center of the cheerleading world. Victoria’s short, choppy hair was unable to support a bow, a very powerful talisman for the Panthers. Shelby was a stout, athletic tomboy and liked cheerleading for the stunts, not the glamour. The two girls weren’t yet ready to model swimwear. They wanted a bigger show.

They first tied two large fireworks together with a bow and ignited them. “Nice,” Victoria said. But not enough. They each tied three large launch tubes together, for a total of six fireworks, and set the bundles side by side. Shelby and Victoria had been cheering for as long as they could remember. They knew that when it came to partner stunts, timing was crucial.

The girls lit the long fuses and hopped back. Shelby’s fusillade shot off half a second early and knocked over Victoria’s bundle. It ignited while lying on its side, shooting fireworks across the driveway and into a yard bordering the neighbor’s house. The explosion kicked the launch tubes back at Victoria and Shelby, forcing them to dive for cover. When Victoria opened her eyes, there was an ember in the grass in front of her. She patted it out, relieved. Shelby couldn’t stop laughing, staring up at the stars. Then she rolled over on her stomach and looked across the gravel driveway. There were five rings of fire stretching across 50 feet of dry Bermuda grass.

“Girls! Get up!” Shelby’s mom yelled. She asked Hailstone where the water hoses were. Hailstone’s daughter called 911. Shelby ran into the utility room looking for buckets but returned with a few bottles of water. She dumped them out on the fire, with no effect. By the time the rest of the squad strolled outside with beach towels, ready for a swim, the patches had merged into a blaze with 8-foot flames dancing in the air.

Out came the iPhones. Fourteen-year-old Carly Manning tweeted her 7,900 followers, “The Panthers start fires! #BABS,” using the team’s shorthand for “Bad-Ass Bitches.” The Panthers tweeted so much during the fire that their followers began tweeting back, “Shouldn’t you be putting out the fire?”

Then Hailstone noticed the grass fire was now within 40 yards of an 800-gallon propane tank. She ran to the garage to find a large ice chest. “Girls,” Scherry screamed, “get off your phones and help!”

That’s how the best cheerleading squad in the world bonded at the start of a season, with an assist from the McKinney Fire Department. Back in the media room by 1 am, after the chief of police had left, having scolded Hailstone, the girls collapsed onto the floor. They had found their theme for the year: the Panthers were hot. They googled the Chinese symbol for fire. They definitely needed to get t-shirts made. Fire also needed to be a part of their routine music. They tweeted their followers more: “We’re hot! #BABS! #fire.”

This was a good moment for Shelby to explain to Victoria and the new members of the squad what it meant to be a BAB. “It’s not about just saying it or wearing the t-shirt or the bow,” she said. “You have to act like it, not just tweet it. We need to all act like it this year.”

“I just want to win.” For Shelby, that’s what cheerleading is about. It’s a few months after the slumber party, and she’s at practice, inside the Cheer Athletics facility in Garland. She has a second-degree ankle sprain, so she’s lying on the floor. Someone has brought in Scentsy candles. Shelby picks up a tin and takes a whiff. “Oh, God,” she says, squinching her entire face. “That smells like Mystic Tan.”

Shelby is a base, which means she’s literally a supporting cast member. She and other bases are nicknamed “the men of Panthers” or “Manthers” because they can hold up the daintier girls, the flyers, so that everyone can behold their flexibility and flat abs. She and her mom drive 60 miles round trip from Caddo Mills to Cheer Athletics three days a week.

Shelby looks at her teammates, some very tan, most very made-up. She leans back on her elbows, her triceps bulging. The Bishop Lynch High School senior whispers, “Sometimes when the girls sweat, they actually smell like Mystic Tan.” She rolls her green eyes, fidgeting with one of eight earrings, most of which she herself did the piercings for. The 5-foot-2 powerhouse is pale and doesn’t wear lip gloss. “It’s becoming more about how people look than what they can do,” she says. “I like the work and winning, not worrying about how pretty I am.”

This will be Shelby’s ninth and final season at Cheer Athletics. She’ll go off to the University of Oregon on a tumbling and acrobatics scholarship, a new college sport called acro. It’s a different cheer world now, she says. Teammates Carly Manning and Bailey Payton have thousands of Twitter followers and get mobbed at competitions. Shelby says she sometimes feels like an outsider on her own team. “I see it heading away from athletics, this whole ‘hashtag perfect’ thing,” she says, referring to how other Twitter users tag posts about girls like Carly and Bailey. “ ‘So-and-so is such a Barbie, she’s perfect.’ A lot of cheerleaders are famous now, but they don’t understand they’re on a team.”

Forget the girls on the sidelines, the ones in pleated miniskirts who high-kick and yell, “Go team!” when the pigskin nears the end zone. This story is not about those cheerleaders.

photography by Elizabeth Lavin

This story is about the Panthers, a team of 5-hour Energy-filled athletes I followed for a year, through practices, competitions, tears, tweets, and tickle fights. The squad includes 90-pound freshmen who can fly through the air like Tinker Bell and land in the palm of a base, a sneaker pulled over her ponytail. They are 12- to 18-year-olds who can transition uniformly from balletic dance sequences mixed with hip-hop box arms to Cirque du Soleil pyramids, all choreographed to thumping gay bar music. Most Panthers are Olympic-caliber gymnasts. You’ve probably watched them on ESPN. They are one of 2,000 all-girl and co-ed squads across the world that compete in a brand of private, pay-to-play cheerleading known as All-Star.

“Anybody in cheerleading knows who the Panthers are,” says King Harrison, a consultant and coach who runs a popular online cheerleading forum called Fierce Board that is generally considered the place to get daily cheerleading scoop. Harrison says that every time the Panthers are mentioned on Fierce Board, “it blows up.” “In our world, the Panthers are celebrities. Make that cheer-lebrities.” He notes that Cheer Athletics is dubbed Cheer Ab-letics, for some of the girls’ well-toned midsections, and says that it’s no accident that a squad like the Panthers—so talked about, so winning—is based in North Texas. “Texas, in general, has a unique cheerleading environment. And people care most about cheerleading in Dallas.”

A brief history lesson: this all started here. We even get to claim the Herkie.

At SMU in the 1940s, Lawrence Herkimer created his signature jump, the Herkie, a sort of sideways hurdle. Herkimer also later created the Spirit Stick, patented the pompom, hosted the first cheerleading camp ever, and founded the National Cheerleaders Association in Dallas, which birthed an entire industry of North Texas-based uniform companies and peppy paraphernalia outlets. The New York Times called him the “grandfather of modern cheerleading.” (Herkimer sold his stake in his company in 1986.) At last count in North Texas, there were 69 private cheer clubs, stretching from Addison to Wylie, the highest concentration in the United States. We’ve got spirit. Yes, we do.

From his 6,000-square-foot condo with ocean views north of Miami Beach, the 86-year-old Herkimer says, “When I cheered at SMU, well, back then it was much simpler. It was bonfires and pep rallies.” Herkimer, a Dallas native, is wistful for cheerleading’s simpler days, fondly recalling games at the Cotton Bowl with legendary running back Doak Walker charging toward the goal posts. “I was there, right alongside him, cheering him on. That was my job. When he made the touchdown, I did back handsprings the whole way back and passed out. I missed the extra point.” I asked him if he keeps up with the Panthers and other All-Star squads. “No. I like what they’re doing, but that’s not really cheerleading.”

It might not be the old-school way, but competitive cheerleading is growing in popularity. At this year’s National Cheerleading Association All-Star National Championship at the Dallas Convention Center, registrations were up 20 percent, creating the biggest field of competitors since the event’s inception in 1986. Nearly 18,000 cheerleaders and dancers competed. There are two reasons for the surge in popularity, says NCA vice president Justin Carrier. He gives social media a large amount of credit. “Those girls live on Twitter,” he says. 

The other reason for the rise in popularity of private-club cheering: girls really do rule. “Cheerleading is unique,” Carrier says. “They get to maintain their femininity. They get to perform, and they get to be athletes. I don’t know any other mainstream sport like that. You know, teenage girls want to be cute.”

Herkimer isn’t sure what to make of All-Star. “These squads just perform a canned routine that fits in with the stunts and other gymnastics they do,” he says. Then, over the phone, he demonstrates the right way to cheer. “Let’s get one big fight! FIGHT! Let’s get two big fights! FIGHT! FIGHT! Let’s get three big fights! FIGHT! FIGHT! FIGHT!” Slightly out of breath, Herkimer continues: “Now, that’s a much better cheer than this dum-dadum-dum-dum-dadum-dum, with stunts and a two-and-a-half-minute routines at the contests.”

It is easy for me to find the Panthers at their first competition of the season. “Just look for the cars that say ‘We’re hot!’ in shoe polish,” Shelby’s mom, Scherry, tells me over the phone as I navigate the streets around UNT one morning in November 2011. “After that fire, they’re still obsessed with how hot they are.”

In her East Texas accent, Scherry calls herself a “baby sitter for older girls.” She makes it her business to “know everything Panther.” She monitors Facebook closely. “They put everything online,” Scherry says. “I tell the girls, ‘You want to hear it from me. You don’t want to hear from Brad [Habermel, the Panthers’ coach].’ You should have seen his face when he heard about the fire.”

The small competition at UNT has about 204 squads vying for bids to the 2012 NCA national contest. I find the Panthers backstage at the Athletic Center. The 30 girls are war painted—bright lips, dark eyes, bronzed legs—and standing in a circle with the squad’s three coaches. This is their precompetition ritual. They stand with their knees locked, their backs straight, and their arms crossed, holding hands with the girls on either side. They close their eyes and bow their heads.

“Lord, help us out on that floor!” yells 14-year-old Bailey Payton, the team’s de facto chaplain. Her voice bounces off cinder block walls. “Help our tumbling pass, help our timing be good, help us be confident. Help us not hold back. Help us be the team that you know we can be. Help us be the best, dear Lord! We know that through you anything is possible, Lord Jesus! In your name we pray! Amen!”

“Amen!” the circle of 30 girls answers.

“This is the beginning of your journey this year,” says Brad Habermel, one of the Panthers coaches and part owner of Cheer Athletics. From the competition floor, instrumental music swells. Habermel starts to yell: “I want each of you to take the floor and put everything you have into the two and a half minutes. I want it on pogo sticks from the very beginning. Have a blast, because that’s all that’s important.” The 39-year-old former college cheerleading champ looks like Cheer Ken in a Cheer Athletics staff t-shirt and jeans. He turns to look at the handful of 8-year-old girls standing outside the circle. They belong to the junior division. They are all holding iPhones, taking pictures. Habermel realizes there’s something besides having a blast that’s important. “The minute you finish performing, your routine will be on YouTube. Do your best. All the fame and glory come with this. But. No. Mistakes. Today. Be the smart cheerleader.”

As the Panthers line up, several girls slam Pixy Stix for a sugar boost. I jog behind Habermel and the two assistant coaches, Joe O’Toole and Brandon Arbogast, across the floor, just in front of the judges. “You know, this competition isn’t that big of a deal,” Habermel tells me quietly. The former University of Louisville cheerleading captain who led his squad to three national championships crosses his brawny arms. “There aren’t really any big squads here anyway.” He laughs awkwardly. “Except for us.”

“Please welcome the world-champion Panthers!”

The girls stalk the padded basketball court in skin-tight $400 blue-and-silver uniforms. The cropped long-sleeve tops and miniskirts with hot pants make them look like cocktail waitresses from the future. The music starts.

The Panthers got that glow! We’ve only just begun!

They’re out of sync from the start. The back handsprings are off. The squad’s energy is low, and many girls seem about two beats behind. Then comes the “arabesque full-around” stunt, an exceedingly difficult maneuver in which seven groups of bases heave flyers into a one-legged yoga pose in air, followed by a spin and a kick. Seven Panthers go up; only six land on their feet.