With her blond head about eight feet above the mat, little Alex Johnson looked unsure. Her leg wobbled in the other girls' grasps. Her face twitched and her big eyes darted as she tried to kick her other leg up and catch her toes to strike the pose known as a heel stretch in the sport of cheerleading.
From the floor, Jenniffer Rosin, the coach and founder at River City Cheer and Gymnastics, told Johnson she needed to kick her leg in a sharp motion. But Johnson couldn't bring herself to snap up the leg.
Johnson attempted to raise it slowly, but when she reached over to grab her toe, Johnson lost her balance. Her arms flailed and her body bent in half as she came crashing down into another girl's embrace.
This was just one part of practice on a recent Wednesday evening. Founded in 1994, River City Cheer teaches the sport of cheerleading every year to about 25 to 30 athletes. Participants range in age from 5 to 18. The facility's teams also participate in about eight to 10 competitions per year.
Rosin was recently honored with Alaska Spirit Coaches Association's coach of the year award at a state competition on Oct. 23 at Chugiak High School, further legitimizing the center as one of Alaska's top cheerleading programs.
Not that the girls or coaches involved ever doubted that fact.
Cassi Holmes, one of the girls holding up Johnson, used to play soccer when she was little. She used to play defense. But Holmes, now 11, spent most of her time doing cartwheels on the soccer field, so her parents asked her if she wanted to get into the sport of tumbling.
Now she's a pretty serious athlete. She remembers one competition where she was supposed to do a sequence stringing several tumbles together. But she messed up and only did one. Holmes was pretty down on herself, but coach Rosin offered encouragement, telling Holmes how tightly she held her form during the tumble.
After her routine, Holmes said she cried a lot, thinking she really blew it. She ended up getting second place out of about 20 athletes.
"You have to be proud of what you can do," Holmes said of what she learned. "I like performing. I like the adrenaline and showing people what I can do."
Kayla Bauter, 12, has been cheerleading for four years. She remembers doing a round-off back handspring for the first time. It's a challenging maneuver, requiring the tumbler to jump backward into a feet-over-head rotation.
That first time, Bauter wasn't sure she'd be able to do it. She stood at the end of the trampoline-like mat, thinking there was no way she'd be able to fling herself backward.
But Rosin offered encouragement.
"She just told me to do it. She tells us, 'I wouldn't let you do something if you're not ready for it," Bauter said. So Bauter let herself go and launched into the tumble, almost without thinking.
Now, she loves the move and will bop over to the mat, unprovoked, to demonstrate.
Jenni Morris, 12, has been tumbling for three years. She participates in other extracurricular activities, like band, but she enjoys cheerleading most. She loves that it's such a physical activity.
"Music is just your mouth and your fingers," Morris, who plays the saxophone, said. "Tumbling is with all your muscles and all your might."
Morris's sister, Jaimee, coaches at River City after devoting her childhood to competing. She said the most important thing is to make sure the girls are enjoying themselves. Sometimes the team gets upset when they are struggling with a particular element. That's when the coaches step in, Jaimee Morris, 18, said.
"We stop to talk to them and say, "Girls, don't you realize this is just to have fun. Don't stress. It will be all right," Morris said.
Parents say they appreciate the positive atmosphere at River City.
"It's all around an awesome program. I've never heard them say they did a wrong move or use any negatives," Kelly Warren said. "For my little girl it keeps her active, gives her something to look forward to, helps her performance, her self confidence, her coordination. It teaches her discipline and respect of authority and others."
Rosin said she hopes to instill life lessons in her athletes. Cheerleading teaches the importance of being part of a team, leadership, passion and self-confidence, Rosin said. And she says the sport is uniquely qualified to do so.
"I like to say it's a full contact sport without pads," Rosin said. "It's a team sport but it's based on individual ability."
Of course, cheerleading is also about enjoyment.
"We try and keep it fun. The goal is to do well in the sport but still be able to be kids," Rosin said.
Back at practice, Johnson was ready to be hoisted up again. She stepped into the girls' cupped hands, and they lifted her into the air.
Once steadied, Johnson worked into a move that requires her to hold the bottom of her foot flat across the back of her head. She arched her left leg and reached over her head to grab it. She struck the pose and held it tightly for a few seconds.
It was a move that Johnson could not have accomplished without her teammates' support.
River City Cheer can be reached at 260-9990.
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