Cheer Factor

A team that cheers for the Maroons, the campus, and each other.
Photo by: 
Christine Otte
“When you’re spending that much time literally standing half a foot from someone—especially while stunting—it makes you a family.”

It’s not easy being a student at the University of Chicago. Cheerleading for the Maroons is no different.

“I want everyone to talk about a high point in their day, as well as a low point,” says UC Cheer captain Aneesa Sonawalla while leading stretches.

“I didn’t get to take a nap today,” remarks one of the cheerleaders. “But I’m done with my midterms!”

Practices are held two times a week—Sundays in the Gerald Ratner Athletic Center and Tuesdays in Henry Crown Field House—for around two hours at a time.

“I want cheerleaders to be more respected by their fellow peers. We work very hard and we’re not ditzy,” says coach Christine Otte, who is also a Resident Head for Stony Island.

Sonawalla is a third-year physics major and computer science minor involved in the Society of Women in Physics and the Council on University Programming. Co-captain Megan Wu is a fourth-year biochemistry and biology major with a specialization in cancer biology. She works in a radiation oncology lab and is involved in Health Leads through her volunteer work in South Side Chicago clinics.

“We’re not stereotypical cheerleaders, which is what I like about our team,” Otte states.

Otte came along as the coach of UC Cheer last February; prior to her coaching, UC Cheer was student-led for the past half decade. Otte formerly coached the cheerleading team at Cincinnati Christian University for three years and has been cheerleading since middle school.

“I need you two days a week, two hours a day,” Otte explains. “You can’t build awesome stunts if you don’t have everyone in practice.”

Currently, there are 28 members on the UC Cheer team. The team is composed largely of individuals selected from tryouts held last April. Since then, according to Otte, the new members have been taught motions and stunts, starting from the basic levels. Tryouts were also held last fall.

Most of the people on UC Cheer come onto the team with no cheer experience, and have to learn from the ground up. Second-year UC Cheer member Stormy Ruiz actually participated in marching band in high school, and decided to give cheerleading a shot upon discovering that UChicago lacked a marching band.

Sonawalla explains, “There’s this hill that everyone who starts out has to get over, because cheerleading makes you do things that bodies don’t naturally do, and it takes time for people to get used to that.”

The majority of the cheers that UC Cheer performs are brought in by Otte, with occasional input from Wu and Sonawalla. Cheerleaders are encouraged to bring in cheers that they would like to perform as well.

The process for introducing new cheers to the squad is extensive: following review of the cheer from the captain and co-captain, a videotape of the cheer is posted on UC Cheer’s private Facebook page, and the team is expected to look at it and practice at home. Stunt proposals follow a similar rubric, with additional practice.  “We have to hit [the stunt] like five to ten times back-to-back before we consider it safe for a game. Getting to that point depends on how hard the stunt is,” states Sonawalla.

Prior to Otte’s coaching, participation on UC Cheer was optional, and frequently there was uncertainty over who would be cheering at a game. Along with the new practice requirements, Otte went through the process of gaining recognition for UC Cheer as a sports club. Previously, UC Cheer was considered part of the pep team alongside the pep band.

Assistant Athletic Director Brian Bock, who oversees more than 40 sports clubs on campus, assisted UC Cheer in its transition to becoming a sports club.

“I think they’re definitely heading in the right direction, and that Christine has been at the forefront of that,” says Assistant Athletic Director Brian Bock. “With her cheerleading background, coming in and formalizing things… she saw the improvement that could be made and the potential that was there.”

Otte envisions UC Cheer maintaining its current size, but adding more elite stunts to their repertoire and receiving more support from the University—recognition from fellow students and more funding from administrators.

The latter deals with the well-documented separation between the general campus and athletics, the issue that led to the demolition of the old Stagg Field in the first place (the Regenstein Library occupies its former location).

“There is a disconnect across campus, but I think it’s gotten a lot better,” says Bock. “Is it perfect? No. But we’re making a lot of great strides. What people need to know, first of all, is that we have a cheerleading club. Second of all, they’re pretty darn good.”

Bock highlights the work UC Cheer does in connecting the campus to varsity events. “I think that they enhance the atmosphere at our varsity contests and bring some additional excitement, passion, and enthusiasm. It adds to the college environment we’re looking for, where people are excited to be at varsity events.”

Cheerleaders ultimately draw their spirit and enthusiasm from each other, explains Wu. “We’re a cohesive team. We celebrate our victories, we celebrate each other, and we do things that we can’t do individually. We trust each other to push everyone to the top.”

Sonawalla adds, “For me, when I’m performing, I’m doing it for my cheer team. When you’ve been to all the practices, when you see all the hours people are putting into cheer outside of practice—it goes back to the team dynamic. There are people you don’t want to let down, you want to give your all.”

A cheerleader since high school, Sonawalla has participated in UC Cheer since her first year at the University.  “I’ve never been on a team quite like a cheer team,” says Sonawalla. “When you’re spending that much time literally standing half a foot from someone—especially while stunting—it makes you a family.”