Cheering through grief, violence and adversity

It is about 4:30 p.m., four days before the state championship, and the Fort Vancouver High School cheerleading team is an hour into practice. The seniors are leading a run-through of their sideline routine, stomping out a rhythm, shouting “red and white!” in time with their corresponding red and white pompoms and cardboard signs.

Valerie Newcomer, or “Coach Val,” just got off the phone with one of the cheer moms. Two hours earlier, there had been a fatal shooting outside of a strip mall down the road from the suburban school. She learned that the young man who died at the scene was the boyfriend of senior cheerleader Jay Jay James. Newcomer informs her team that James would not be coming to practice that day.

“When you see her, wrap your arms around her,” the coach tells the squad before dismissing them for a quick break to process the news. “I need you guys to keep going. We will get through this, too,” Newcomer says. Wearing practice sweats and workout clothes, the cheerleaders huddle in small groups along the wall of the gym, texting messages of support to their teammate.

“This stuff happens to them, and this is their safe place when their world is crashing down around them,” Newcomer says. Fort Vancouver High School is in Vancouver, Washington, about 25 minutes north of Portland, just across the Columbia River. The student body of about 1,500 is 57% minority (largely Latinx) — unusual, given that the city is about 80% white. The majority of Fort Vancouver students (74%) are on free or reduced lunchThe school website places pride in diversity as a cultural pillar, including in its key tenets: “Accept and respect different cultures, lifestyles and heritages; Respect and honor rituals.” The 16-member cheer team reflects the school’s diversity, and its mission.

But the shooting is only the most recent example of the personal struggles Fort Vancouver cheerleaders have endured, which include domestic violence, suicide and bullying.

In addition, the group has fought to be taken seriously as a competitive team. At times, it was unclear if they would make it to state.

But they did. This year the Fort Vancouver Trappers qualified for the state championship for the first time in 16 years, making history for their school. It took months of hourslong practices, sacrifices to their social and family lives and staying focused in the face of personal challenges.

The obstacles have also been institutional. This was the first year the team had matching uniforms, and only the second year they have had functioning cheer mats to practice on (a safety requirement). The team also has to practice off site because longer established sports get priority on gym space.

Newcomer says she has recently felt more supported by the athletic department and school administrators. “I think when you start taking things more seriously and show you are an integral part of the school's community, they start taking you more seriously as well,” she says. “The kids helped change that culture.” She believes the key to the team’s success has been the students.

“The seniors set the foundation for this team,” Newcomer says. “I think we made it this far because we have really good leadership.”

Seniors Jesus Mar, right, and Marley Smith do their hair and makeup together before that evening’s basketball game — the last of the season — and reminisce about the past four years together.

Senior cheerleader Jesus Mar moved to Vancouver from Mexico with his family when he was in the eighth grade. He didn’t know what cheerleading was and he didn’t speak any English. After meeting Coach Val, he tried out for the team freshman year and made varsity. He was the only boy on the team, which made him a little hesitant, but he says Newcomer pushed him to be himself.

“When I met Coach, it was the first time someone believed in me 24/7,” Mar says. “I wouldn’t be this Jesus without cheer and without Coach.” Mar has an outgoing personality, often singing or dancing during practice, but snaps into a natural leadership mode when necessary.

Since joining the team four years ago, he says he has become more comfortable with his gay identity. He started wearing makeup and letting more of his true self come through, which he says was a transition for his family (whom he now counts among his biggest supporters). He wants to be a role model for younger boys — to show them that it’s OK to be a boy cheerleader, to be gay, to wear makeup.

“I come from a country where being gay or being different is something bad,” Mar says. “I don't want people to feel the way I felt a couple of years ago.”

His influence is already apparent. When the team visits middle schools to recruit new cheerleaders, younger boys ask to take pictures with Mar.

He’s also modeling resilience. When Mar was a freshman, a best friend committed suicide. But he came to cheer practice the next day. He says being with his cheer family helped him get through those times. 

“That is our life as cheerleaders. We always go through stuff and have to find a way to not let it get to us. Cheer is our safe spot,” he says.

Head coach Valerie “Coach Val” Newcomer cries as she hugs freshman cheerleader Cloie Whitworth after the team performed at the WIAA state cheerleading competition.

Coach Val can relate. Cheer was a safe haven for her growing up, too. Her mother and stepfather struggled with drug addiction. Her mother and older brothers experienced abuse at the hands of her stepfather, as did she, to a lesser extent. 

“It was my entire childhood. That was normal for me,” she says.

She became a ward of the state in high school and was taken in by her best friend’s family. At 13, she found cheerleading, which helped distract her from her family troubles.

“I think [cheerleading] helped keep my mind off of never seeing my mom. It filled that void,” Newcomer says. “I could have gone down a bad path. I don’t think I would have stayed in high school if I didn’t have cheerleading.”

So when her cheerleaders have something going on at home, her aim is to provide the same kind of safe space at practice that she relied on when she was their age.

Senior Marley Smith waits to be announced during senior night, escorted by her boyfriend, at Fort Vancouver High School.

Though Marley Smith is not going to state with the competition team because of her job — she can’t afford to take time off — she remains a core leader. Her maturity and love for her teammates is apparent when she speaks, often giving encouraging advice and passing on lessons she has learned over the past four years. 

She grew up in an abusive home. She spent a couple years in the foster care system and had to grow up fast and raise her younger brother.

Though Smith and her mother now have a close relationship, she says for most of her childhood she didn’t know what a parent was.

“It's funny because we have people come to us all the time saying, ‘You're so young, you still have so much more to experience,’ ” Smith says. “We get that. But at the same time, you don't know what we have experienced already.”

On this day, Smith attends an extra practice with her fellow seniors. They are working on a special performance for “senior night” at school. During a basket toss — when team members throw her high up into the air —  she smiles her biggest smile and reaches for her toes. She says she has learned to hide her pain when she is performing, because she has to. 

“You can have stuff going on, like really hard things, but once you step out in front of a crowd, you can't let them know that you're hurting,” she says. “Once you step on the mat, it is your happy place.”

Senior Jessica Salinas during cheer practice.

At another practice, Jessica “Jess” Salinas tries to keep her teammates focused as they rework their formations before state. Her position is close to front and center for much of the routine. This is her first year back to cheering after she took her junior year off to give birth to her daughter. She says her mom watches her daughter every day after school so she can cheer.

“[Cheer] is the only place I can be myself and not worry about anything else,” she says, wiping sweat from her face and catching her breath.

Being a senior and a leader on the team is a lot of pressure for Salinas. But no matter what she is going through — including her nephew’s death in November — she tries to stay positive because she knows so many of her teammates are struggling outside of cheer, just as she has.

“It is pretty hard to deal with,” Salinas says. “But it feels good we are going to state. It is kind of like we made history. We all worked really hard to get where we are.”

Senior Jay Jay James, center, has dinner with her family in their Vancouver home.

After missing practice on the day her boyfriend was killed, Jay Jay James was back at it two days later. In the gym she helps roll out the mats and gets to work, getting caught up on new formation changes and offering constructive criticism to teammates as they run through their routine.

Her grandmother, who lives with the family, is a cancer survivor. Her mother is a domestic violence survivor. James feels like watching these women in her life has shaped how she deals with her own trying times.

“I feel like I have such a strong family,” James says. “I’ve always been surrounded by people who don’t give up, and I feel like I brought that to cheer.”

When the family moved to Washington in 2015 to escape a domestic violence situation, James had a hard time in school (in a different district). She says she was bullied for the color of her skin. Students would pull her hair and throw garbage at her.

After moving on to Fort Vancouver High School, she was relieved to see other students that looked like her. She tried out for cheerleading and finally felt like she was a part of something.

“Cheer built me back up to my normal self. I felt like it was a second home,” she says. “I wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for my mom and Coach Val.”

Jay Jay James, right, and sophomore Yeseira Duran hug in the cafeteria after senior night at Fort Vancouver High School.

The day after her boyfriend’s death, James attended “senior night” — a celebration of the basketball, cheer and dance teams that marks the end of the season and a sendoff for the departing seniors. 

“Everybody struggled on the team,” James says, “and knowing people were going through stuff and still showing up to cheer, I knew I couldn’t give up. It has always been more than a team.” 

When her name was announced during the ceremony, she walked down the center of the basketball court with tears in her eyes.

Afterward, the team gathered in the empty cafeteria to share parting words and gratitude for the past four years, and encouragement for the younger cheerleaders to keep working hard together next year. 

James sat quietly with her mother’s arms wrapped around her. She was the last one to speak.

“All of the other [Fort Vancouver] sports have been on the top of the hill, and we have been climbing up the side. Now we are almost to the top of it. No one believed in us. … Upcoming seniors, do it your own way ... be as good as you can be. Today is here but tomorrow is never promised.”

On the bus to the state championship, Jay Jay James looks at a framed photo of her boyfriend, Trevonta “Trey” Billie Steven Burks, who was fatally shot just four days before.

Early on the morning of the state championship, the cheerleaders are antsy. On the bus, the excitement is palpable as they make the 30-minute drive to Battle Ground High School for the competition.

James pulls out the photo of her boyfriend she brought along. “[The photo] helps me a lot. I probably wouldn’t be able to be here without him,” she says.

He had been supportive of her cheerleading, and was excited to see her perform at state. She carefully places the photo next to her on the seat, as she talks with her coach and mentally prepares herself.

The Fort Vancouver High School Trappers cheerleading team performed at the WIAA state cheerleading competition for the first time in 16 years.

Freshman Lailani Benitez, center, dances with her teammates while watching other teams perform at the WIAA state cheerleading competition.

At Battle Ground High School, the competition gym is split in half. Facing the mat, family members, fans and judges fill the bleachers, with overflow spectators standing along the railings. Opposite the spectators, color-coordinated clumps of cheerleaders watch other teams perform, waiting for their turn. In the hallways of classrooms outside the gym, they do nervous last-minute run-throughs. “Good luck,” they say over and over, passing each other going to and from the gym.

Coach Val gathers her team for one last huddle. “We are slowly starting to change things at Fort and it is starting with you,” she says. “Without these seniors that we have here today, this program would be nothing. They are the ones that set the stage for you guys, you guys are setting the tone for the teams to come.”

In the small holding area off of the gym, the team is “on-deck.” Mar, Salinas and James give last-minute pep talks as cheerleaders check hair bows and shoelaces. When they finally take the mat, Newcomer positions herself on the floor right in front. The marching-band music starts and their faces all light up as the crowd cheers them on. Salinas and James serve as bases for some of the stunts, while Mar works the red and white signs leading the cheers, and assists with lifts.

After performing at the WIAA state cheerleading competition Feb. 8, team members wrote “We did that!!!” on a white board.

Fort Vancouver is up against seven other teams in their division. But as is tradition, only the top few teams from each division are announced during the awards ceremony. 

Bethel and Bellevue high schools take home the division’s top two prizes. The ranking of the remaining six teams remains a mystery until after the ceremony, when Newcomer gets the score sheet and shares the results with her team.

Fort Vancouver comes in seventh out of eight teams. And they are thrilled. Jaws drop and screaming ensues as they celebrate the huge accomplishment: They beat another team.

“Being able to go to a competition and place for state was like, wow,” James says. “I feel like we had the right people on the team. We were always there for each other, and having people willing to show up with what they are going through at home is really special to me.”

Jesus Mar agrees. “No matter what, we are always there for each other and we are always able to get through it because at the end of the day, you get to go home and say you are doing a sport with your best friends.”

As everyone packs up to leave, they share hugs and some tears as the season officially comes to a close. Teammates and their families trickle out to their cars and head back to their homes and lives outside of cheer, leaving behind a new legacy for the future of Fort Vancouver cheerleading.

Seniors Jesus Mar and Jessica Salinas hug as they walk together during the WIAA state cheerleading competition.

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