A cheerleader’s drive leads her to cheer at Syracuse University
A cheerleader's drive leads her to cheer at Syracuse University
When Alejandra “Allie” Lupton saw the team ahead of her hit their last pose, all knowledge of her own routine left her mind.
In the middle of January of last year, Orlando, FL played host to the UCA & UDA College Cheerleading and Dance Team National Championship where Syracuse University is a regular customer.
By 9:30 a.m., Lupton and her Syracuse teammates were waiting to be called to take the mat at the ESPN World Wide of Sports, having already meticulously done their makeup, styled their hair, jumped into their five-piece uniform, taken a bus to the site and warmed up.
Throughout the 30 minute long warmup, Lupton remained stoic, going silent amid the chaos around her as a way to center herself. But when Syracuse was announced to the stage, the anxiety kicked in.
“I look at myself, I look at my teammates, and I’m like ‘Who are you? What are we doing? I don’t know where to go,’” Lupton said. “I forget everything and I go 100% blank.”
The team rushed out and Lupton assumed her position on the mat, and that’s when everything began to flow back. She recited the next steps in her head as she got to each breathing spot. A tumble rolls into a breathing spot here, then the arms go up, leading to a roundoff over here.
Lupton was back in her comfort zone, competing in the sport that has had a grip on her since she was eight years old, cheering for her local Pop Warner football team.
Lupton, a senior from New Jersey, is in her fourth and final year on Syracuse’s cheerleading team while she wraps up degrees from both the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and the Martin J. Whitman School of Management.
In her combined eight years of high school and college, Lupton has never watched a football game from the student section, but she wouldn’t have it any other way, she said. Instead, she’s performing backflips in the endzone, competing in national championships and training several times a week at a sport that many still deem as illegitimate.
Lupton loved football from a young age, and with her brother playing the sport and her dad coaching it, she was sequestered to the bleachers with her mom.
“Initially, she actually didn’t want to cheer,” Allie’s mother Michele Lupton said. “I think she just got tired of sitting in the stands with me, so she figured she might as well do something.”
At just eight years old, Lupton, who was very shy, joined the sideline group and was one of the youngest girls on the team. Lupton and the cheerleaders were a sing-songy bunch, she said.
Reaching back into the memory bank, she remembered one of the first cheers she performed: “Red hot. Our team is red hot. Our team is r-e-d red, h-o-t hot. So red hot, we can’t be stopped.”
By no means did “Red Hot” compare to the competitive performances Lupton would go on to master, but it was enough to get her hooked.
Cheer emerged as her clear passion, ahead of the many other sports she participated in. Lupton always had a full plate, dabbling in dance, track, softball, lacrosse, and karate throughout her childhood. In fact, she achieved a second-degree black belt in her ten years doing karate.
“The first trophy that I won for a sparring competition was taller than me,” Lupton said.
As time went on, her shyness turned to toughness. Her mother said that at one point, Allie was the only girl in the dojo with 10 other boys. The sensei offered a reward for any boy that could beat Allie. One by one, the boys approached Allie, and one by one, she took them down. Nobody got a reward that day.
Her brother, Mikey, is also a second-degree black belt in karate, but was never able to take down his sister.
“People would want to fight me because they were scared to fight Allie,” he said.
Karate was out of the picture by the time Lupton was 14, with cheer, high school studies, and other obligations picking up, but the sport gave her thicker skin. She attributes her high pain tolerance and lack of injuries over her cheerleading career in part to karate.
“I was one of the only girls, so I was fighting boys for 10 years and got used to getting hit and taking a punch,” Lupton said.
Cheerleading has the 10th highest concussion rate among youth sports and is the only sport that has a higher concussion rate during practices than competitions.
Despite this, in the 14 years that she has been a cheerleader, Lupton has only missed time due to injury once. She suffered a broken finger in the eighth grade during an awkward landing while attempting to learn a new stunt, but she didn’t realize something was awry until she glanced at her hand and noticed the middle finger on her right hand swelling up.
It wasn’t until the doctor informed her that she’d be missing eight weeks that the tears began to flow. The pain didn’t provoke emotion out of Lupton, but the idea of missing time on the mat did. It was the first and only time she was forced to sit out and watch as her teammates perfected new tumbling methods and stunts.
Five years later, as a senior in high school, Lupton suffered hairline fractures in both of her wrists. The result would mean an extended absence from competitive cheer, something she didn’t want to face again.
“They told me I’d be sitting out for eight weeks and I thought to myself ‘I’m not doing that again, I can’t do it,’” Lupton said.
Instead of going through with the recovery process, Lupton found ways to numb the pain, whether it be through wrist tape, Icy Hot, or Tiger Balm. All the while, she had just been elevated to a higher level competitive cheer team, requiring more taxation on her wrists and shoulders from her base position. The hurt in her wrists eventually – and somewhat mysteriously – subsided, but to this day, she’s unsure if those hairline fractures still exist, she said.
Once Lupton got accepted into Syracuse, joining the cheer team was a foregone conclusion. Tryouts were a formality for her, fresh off a stint in high school with All Star Cheer’s Senior Five, the premier team for the gym in central New Jersey.
She had no off-season, explaining that she hopped off the plane of her last All Star Cheer competition on Monday, then turned around and had ‘Cuse Cheer tryouts on Wednesday.
“That kind of intensity, when you’re in there three, four or five times a week, you’re looking at 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. all day to perform one time, for people to turn around and say, ‘Oh, it’s not a sport,’” Lupton said. “I bust my ass year-round.”
The way Lupton’s parents raised her helped to manage that intensity. On the car ride back from one of Allie’s first competitions, her mother taught her a lesson that stuck.
“She was crying on the way home and I turned around and said to her, ‘Look, if you’re going to cry, we’re not doing this anymore. If you’re going to cry every time you lose, we are not doing this,’” Michele said. “And that was the last time I saw her cry after losing a competition.”
When Allie decided to quit track at 11 years old, her parents asked her, “Ok, what are you going to do instead?” and she replied, “Nothing. I’m going to sit on the couch and watch TV.”
Wrong answer. In what developed into something of a motto for Allie’s parents, they said, “We don’t care what you do, but you can’t sit here and do nothing.”
Evidently, Lupton took that to heart. She doesn’t spend much time sitting around doing nothing. Lupton practices up to every day of the week and travels for football and basketball games, not to mention the yearly cheer competition in Orlando.
Still, there remains the stigma that cheer isn’t a sport.
“It’s a two minute, 30 second routine, which doesn’t sound like a long time when you say it, but try to hold a plank for two minutes and 30 seconds,” Lupton said. “That’s essentially what you’re putting your body through.”
On the surface, Lupton’s strong opinions and the black belt in her back pocket gives the impression of a hard-nosed demeanor. While this is certainly true, teammates find solace in her openness.
Paige Yamane has been one of Lupton’s closest friends on the team since freshman year, and the two also happen to base together.
“I remember being really nervous to talk to anyone, and Allie’s very open,” Yamane said. “She likes to talk, so I felt more comfortable around her.”
Lupton and Yamane train together and oftentimes hang out outside of cheer.
During the yearly trip to Orlando, Lupton and Yamane always make sure to plan out which rollercoasters to ride ahead of time at Disney World. Yamane rode the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, her favorite attraction at the parks, for the first time with Lupton alongside her, she said.
When Allie was four years old, her father realized she was particularly shy, so he put her in karate. There, she developed strength and tenacity. At the same time, Allie was refining her teamwork and leadership skills on the cheerleading mat. The result became a determined and enthusiastic individual with a no-nonsense yet approachable attitude.
Michele recounted a time when Allie decided she wanted to switch gyms in cheer to face tougher competition. With her mind made up, Allie approached the owner of the gym she had been competing in.
“The woman was crying because Allie was leaving, and Allie explained to her that there was nothing left for her there,” Michele said. “She’s very driven, and if there’s nothing to learn, she’ll walk away and find something else.”