Overcoming Adversity: Cheer Fusion All Stars
Cheer Fusion All Stars has had an amazing year for the history of their gym. In season eight, they earned 51 First Place Wins, 12 Grand Champion titles, a Paid Bid to The Summit, an At-Large Bid to The Summit, an At-Large Bid to The Dance Worlds and 5 US FINALS Paid Bids; Cheer Fusion was also one of the three national finalists for the USASF Small Program of the Year; Director and Coach Mandi Spina was named Cheer & Dance Extreme’s Coach of the Year for the 2013-2014 season. Most gyms would look at this and be proud; Cheer Fusion is no exception to this. But it was the end of their 6th season that truly defined what this gym is all about. July 8th, 2012 was the day that could have ended all of this before it could ever be envisioned. But instead July 8th, 2012 was the beginning of something far greater than anyone could imagine, and dwarfs all of the accolades listed.
“That day is one that I will never forget,” Mandi Spina remembered. “We had just got done doing our annual gym fundraiser raffle. All prizes had been given out, even the 42” flat screen TV. Everyone had cleared the gym except for our Senior Co-Ed Level 4 “Dream Team” and some of their parents. We even had two new cheerleaders in the gym to watch the team practice and see our facility. Around 5:30 p.m. the sky started to darken and the rain started. No one paid any mind to the weather, it was normal in our area to get sudden bouts of rain. The rain started coming down harder and even went sideways to the point where it was coming in to the gym under one of the garage doors. The parents and my son were up against the garage doors watching the rain pour down when the lights went off. Dream Team was in the middle of stunting so I instructed them to put their stunts down and sit in the middle of the floor.
“The wind started to pick up at that point and the hail was coming down. We still didn’t pay much attention to what could be happening as there were no weather alerts coming in that we could hear. Because of the winds and the garage doors starting to shake, I told Dream Team to stand up and single file get in to the dance room, which is our “safe haven” steel enforced dance room. I had taken other teams in there during other storms just so the athletes didn’t get scared because of the rain and wind. Not even two minutes after I told them to get in to the room, there was a loud train-like noise and then the walls started to collapse around us. I shoved kids in to the dance room and ran in myself. I was in a panic as my then three year old son was also in the gym and I couldn’t find him. I screamed for him and one of the cheer dads yelled that he had Aidan and was hiding him under his body to protect him.
“Debris and pieces of the walls were flying all around us as we ran in to the dance room. I huddled all of the kids I could as well as my son into the corner and tried to cover my entire body over them. They were scared and screaming as the doors to the dance room were being forced open by pieces of debris that were stuck. Dirt, cinder blocks and glass all flew in the air around us as we held our heads low and prayed. A big boom erupted and the entire room went pitch black. The garage door had come off its hinges and now had trapped us in the dance room.
“The entire storm lasted about 5-10 minutes maximum, but it felt like an eternity. The garage door fell off the entrance to the dance room and light was now shining in. I looked around and everyone was covered in dirt and some were bleeding from the debris and glass. The dance mirrors were shattered and pieces of glass were all over the floor. I stood up and walked towards the entrance and that’s when I saw that the entire gym except for where we hid was completely gone. The walls were gone. The spring floor was lifted up and torn in to pieces. The tumble track was moved in another location. Everything was gone. I turned my attention back the athletes as one of the parents was now on the phone with 911. I did a head count of the kids but couldn’t count because I was shaking so badly. I made them line up in a single file line by stunt groups. Thankfully they were all present and seemed to be unharmed. We then took inventory of the parents and realized that two of the parents were not accounted for. Heath and Michelle were missing. Panic set in as another cheer dad rushed outside of the door to find any signs of them. After what seemed like forever, he drug Heath in to the room. In his efforts to get all of the athletes in to the room, Heath didn’t make it inside and was trapped under the rubble. He was in bad shape as the paramedics and rescue squads started to arrive. As we were being led out, we saw that the rescue squad had found Michelle in the entry way to the gym. She was trying to make sure no athletes were outside of the gym when the storm struck and was trapped in the entry way under debris. Both parents have been on the long road to recovery and are our everyday heroes in the gym. Heath is called our “Coach of Awesomeness” and gives a pep talk to Dream Team before every competition.”
Those powerful words take a person to a place that very few had been that day. For many, the cheer gym is a “second home” and the other families and coaches are a “second family”. Imagine the thought of losing your home. These families DID. They lost their “cheer home” and everything inside it. “It would have been easy to throw in the towel and say “we have no gym, we can’t go on,” Mandi said. “That’s not the Fusion mentality. We knew that if we could survive that storm, we could survive anything that was in our path.” It was amazing because not only did they survive; they THRIVED.
“The outpouring of love and support from the All-Star Community and the Fredericksburg Community in general was amazing,” Mandi explained. “We were able to start practices back up in just a week using three different facilities.” With the offering of the use of the facilities from North Stafford High School, Paragon Gymnastics and the Fredericksburg Ballroom, they were able to practice and continue on to keep the athletes motivated for the season. The community was amazing with support and donations, but THEIR world – the world of cheer – truly demonstrated how tight knit and supportive the sport truly is.
“JamBrands and specifically Brandi Sims stepped up in a huge way to set up a relief account for help raise money for the rebuilding,” Mandi shared. “Brandi was at the gym site with us the day after it happened offering support and being a shoulder that we desperately needed at that point.” She stated that “the first two coaches to call us where Mike Blaylock and Phil Logan of FAME.” They worked and did whatever they could however it could be done. Current and former Fusion families rose to the occasion and did what any cheer family would do – fundraise. “From the T-Shirt fundraisers done by gyms in the Long Island Area to the care packages we received from gyms across the country and the world, we felt the love of a sport come together for our program. We received donated equipment from gyms and even received a donated floor from the Spring Floor Guys in Delaware. Our new gym would not be possible without the love and support of the entire cheer community!”
Even with all of the generosity that came pouring into the gym, there were the ones that stood out with gestures of support and unity. “One of the most notable packages we received came from Phase All-Stars in Chantilly, VA. They sent care packages with motivational notes from their athletes written on cards. To this day our programs have stayed very close and support each other at competitions. Another notable package came from Jersey Pride All-Stars. Their teams made personalized bows that had Fusion colors and Jersey Pride colors and the parents DROVE down from New Jersey to hand deliver the package,” Mandi recalled. “It’s moments like those that you realize just how close-knit the cheerleading world is.”
With all of the support and unity offered to Cheer Fusion All Stars, it is easy to see how the decision to rebuild was one that had to happen. If there is anything that the cheer community can do, it is rally behind a cause; especially when it is one of their own that is the cause. A gym continuing on is one of the greatest causes there is. When teams go into competition, they might talk about how they will “crush” another program, but that is a figure of speech. If that very same program ever is in need, there is a rally, a fundraiser, an awareness done so that the gym has all the help it could ever need. It is just how the world of cheer operates; as one large community. Gyms compete, but gyms also support one another.
When it had been time to reopen the gym, the team didn’t know what to do. Their gym was double the size of their old one, and the athletes were blown away with all of the available space. “We made sure that the first team in the gym was the last team in the old gym,” Mandi remembered. “That feeling of walking in to a new space and knowing that even though you had just experienced the most devastating event of nature, we were able to rebuild and go on. That’s such a huge message and life lesson for our athletes to learn!” It is a lesson that brought the entire gym closer and changed a lot of people. “Surviving the storm has changed me as a coach and as a person,” said Mandi. “I’ve learned that in a moment, your life can change. The preparation you have to deal with those moments is what carries you through. Had we not had a plan of action to get the athletes in to the room, our situation could have been very different. I’ve learned that setting emergency plans in place is so important in all areas of the country, just not those affected by crazy weather. One of the biggest things I learned as a coach and a person was that even though I was scared out of mind that day, those kids were looking at me to guide them and tell them it would be ok. I had to push aside my own fears to make sure they felt safe. And it’s a job I’ll do over and over again just so those kids know that no matter the situation, they are ok.”
What is the best advice that Mandi Spina has for gyms all over? “My advice to all gyms is to have an emergency plan in your facility. . . get with your local county government or jurisdiction (even Fire Department) to go over the best place to take shelter in case of weather issues.” They had a plan; their interior dance room and all of the athletes, coaches and families knew of the plan. They also ran drills on a regular basis, which helped with the preparedness that they had for that faithful day in July 2012. It was not something that one coach was aware of, or someone thought of at the spur of the moment. It was a basic plan. It is something that every gym should have and should have it posted for everyone to be aware of the situation. Cheer Fusion All Stars is living proof that in an instant anything can change. Mother Nature has her own plan. It is a plan that she shares with no one. No matter how hard humans study and try, there is no way to predict the plan that Mother Nature has at any given moment.
The rebuild and reopening of Cheer Fusion All Stars demonstrates many things. The biggest thing it demonstrates is that nothing can keep a strong person down. In closing, Mandi has some powerful words. “Cheer Fusion owes so much to those that helped us get back on our feet. There is no amount of thanks we can offer that would come close to how grateful we are for everyone’s support in our time of need and after. We are living proof that if you have a dream, you can do anything in life. No matter the obstacle, no matter the hurdle, it’s possible. We teach our athletes three simple words – FAITH, FOCUS, BELIEVE. This is our story. We chose to continue writing our chapters instead of closing the book.” Indeed they do continue their story, and they are anxious to see what their 9th season for cheer and 8th season for hip hop brings them. They made it through all of that with strength and grace; Cheer Fusion All Stars can take anything coming because they are together.http://www.heartofcheer.com/news/overcoming-adversity-cheer-fusion-stars/http://www.heartofcheer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/cheerfusion4.jpghttp://www.heartofcheer.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/cheerfusion4-150x150.jpgBlogCheerleadersCoachesEducationGymsIndustryNewsParentsCheer Fusion All Stars,cheerleading,destruction,gym rebuild,Overcoming Adversity,tornado,weather plans