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Tossing and tumbling: Olympics sees shades of U of M

By Laura Fenton

All U of M alumnae Nichole Rollins and her teammates wanted to do was to take a picture with the Olympic rings as a backdrop in London. But, as the cheerleading squad formed human pyramids and tossed members 20 feet into the air, the pose caught the attention of 300 spectators in Olympic Park who were amazed by the cheerleading stunts of the 16 Americans. She and her teammates went on to do a 30-minute impromptu performance.

“That was the coolest day,” said Rollins (BSEd ’07), who cheered at Memphis from 2003 to 2007 and who is a 10-year instructor and administrator for the Memphis-based cheerleading company Varsity.

Rollins and 15 other veteran Varsity cheerleading instructors and representatives from across the United States traveled to the London Olympic games this past summer to perform at sporting events. This was a first-time trip to London for Rollins.

“I never thought cheerleading would take me to the Olympics,” Rollins said. “It was less pressure – but way more fun – than competing because these people are just excited to see you do something. The simplest stuff we did were the parts they loved the most.”

cheerleading instructors
U of M alumnae Nichole Rollins (fourth from left) traveled with 15 other veteran Varsity cheerleading instructors and representatives from around the U.S. to perform at the London Olympic Games.

Plans didn’t work out as expected for the group when all but one of its performances were cancelled for the men’s basketball tournament, but they still were front and center stage for the Olympic handball competition.

When the team walked onto the court for the first time in front of the 12,000 handball fans, the crowd quickly became ecstatic during the four-minute routine that had team members flying through the air during the stunts.

“Many countries are not exposed to cheerleading,” said Josh McCurdy, director of curriculum for Varsity and coach for the Olympic trip.

Rollins noted that producers of the handball competition said it was the “coolest thing they’d ever seen” because many of the handball fans weren’t familiar with American collegiate-style cheerleading.

“It’s not just sideline pom-poms, rah-rahs and kicks,” McCurdy said. “It’s very athletic. The girls and guys have got to be in excellent shape because it combines all aspects of tumbling, stunting and weight lifting, a lot of aspects that people aren’t aware of.”

Between moments of competition, Rollins and her teammates would join the hundreds of people picnicking in Olympic Park who were watching live events on a giant screen TV.

The halftime performance at the men’s gold medal basketball game was canceled because the UK rap artist accompanying them “didn’t want to wear something they wanted him to wear, so he bailed and they pulled our performance,” Rollins said.

That frustration didn’t last long.

“I know that a lot of people say the Olympics is the one time that the world comes together, and it kind of is,” Rollins said. “In the atmosphere of it, you realize that a lot more. People from all different countries were opening doors for each other and saying ‘hey’ to each other. Even if you couldn’t communicate, there was still the fact that everyone was there for the same reason — to cheer on the athletes. It’s like everyone is best friends.”

If Varsity is given the chance to participate in another Olympic Games, they’ll probably take it.

“We were lucky to fall into this opportunity,” McCurdy said. “By all means, if Rio calls and wants cheerleaders from Varsity, I’m sure we would jump on the opportunity to go and do it again.”

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