When people watch cheerleaders perform at sporting events, they may not think of them as athletes, despite their intricate routines and physical prowess.
A team of talented high school students from across the suburbs and northern Illinois is out to show otherwise this weekend when members head to Disney World to compete in the United States All Star Federation Cheerleading Worlds.
Team Valor, a 43-member all-star squad made up of cheerleaders from 24 Illinois high schools, will seek a world title in Large Coed Level 5, considered the top level of competition.
"This very prestigious event is like the Olympics of cheerleading, and is (the team's) chance to show off their skills and abilities to the world," said Jared Erlenbaugh, program director and coach at Ultimate Athletics in Wauconda, where Team Valor is based. "These kids consider this opportunity an honor."
While many of the teams they'll face have been practicing together since last May, Valor -- one of three Illinois teams competing -- has trained together for a mere three months. They practice three times a week in Wauconda.
Erlenbaugh said the athletes come from some of the most competitive programs in the state and are the best from each school. Some travel from as far away as Rockford and Belvidere to train with Valor, and all competed in the IHSA finals in Bloomington in February.
After achieving the top two scores at a competition in Rosemont last month, Valor not only qualified for the world championships in Orlando, but also received their first "paid bid." This means that the event producer covers some expenses for each qualifying athlete.
Among the athletes going is South Elgin High School senior Nick Balk, 18, who said that it is increasingly difficult to make the team as the skills and talent of potential members rises each year.
"It's a treat to work with others because their skill levels are so different," said Rolling Meadows High School senior Hannah Cohen, 17. "It's super cool to learn everyone else's techniques and from the things they've learned, then put it altogether in a cohesive team."
Valor will compete in the preliminary round Saturday and hopes to advance to day two, where the top 10 teams will proceed to the finals.
"We've worked hard and overcome a lot of things, even though we are a seasoned team," said Quinton Willingham, 17, a Belvidere North High School senior.
"Most teams are around for a long time. It has a different feel being together for only a few months since you only have a short time to make connections with different people, put different skills together and create a routine."
Mackenzie Machon, 16, a Wauconda High School junior, said that while team members come from different schools and communities, one thing unites them.
"We all love cheerleading. That is what brings us together," she said.
Besides the rare chance to compete for a world title, Balk said being a part of Valor has meant an opportunity to make friends with people he otherwise never would have met.
"This is really special," he said. "It doesn't really matter if we win or not, because we are coming together in a world competition against teams that are insanely good and doing something no one else is doing."
"This experience is a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing," Hannah Cohen added. "This program has made me not only grow as an athlete but as an individual, as well as allowed me to meet new people and get new experiences."