FROM MINIS, TO ONE OF THE WORLD’S MOST ICONIC TEAMS
KERNERSVILLE, NC – Cheer Extreme All Stars, tucked in between the mid-sized cities of Greensboro and Winston Salem, NC, in the tiny town of Kernersville has been training some of the industry’s most proficient and stand out athletes since 1994. The gym has become one of the most storied programs in the cheerleading industry due to their iconic athletes, innovative building skills, memorable pyramids, and passionate coaching. The program, which boasts one of the world’s largest social followings has fans on every inhabited continent, has been grooming athletes for this team for over a decade.
Senior Elite, one of the world’s predominant celebrity status teams, arrived on the Cheerleading Worlds scene in 2007. Winning Gold at the event in 2010, 2012, and 2013. The program entered onto the scene quickly, and has long held a fan spotlight in the historic Large Senior All Girl 5 division.
Athletes Kenley Pope, Maddie Dorton, Skylar Dorton, Alexxis Gallagher, Mary Kate Rolland, Maddie Watkins, & Elizabeth George each began their all star cheerleading career at the then yet to be proven all star program Cheer Extreme. The girls over the course of their nine to twelve years as teammates have been working together as teammates, and individuals to one day make the program’s pinnacle team, Senior Elite.
We visited with Head Coach, and program Owner Courtney Pope and her original seven to learn more about the special journey these athletes have undertaken together from Mini Teams to Senior Elite, (one of the world’s most iconic teams).
The talent pool in Kernersville, NC is not what one would expect based on watching the Cheer Extreme program’s teams on the competition floor. Pope describes the population that feeds her now powerhouse gym as anything but what people would expect. “We’re not a metropolis, we’re not supported by the population of a metropolis. Our talent is grown together out of necessity.” she adds when discussing how the program managed to produce similar skilled athletes, all at similar rate of progression for these seven, and many other athletes that train in their rural North Carolina facility. The program did not have options, or depth of widespread talent pool (per/location) to field multiple teams in different age groups at different levels. She says, “we had to grow them together, they had to cheer together… it was not an option” of how they progressed skills together over the last decade. Pope when pressed on what aided in making this happen, she credits the now retired division, Mini 3, for part of the athlete and team’s success. Adding, “they never had to learn Level 1 or 2 stunts. They never had to break the habits of flying reclined on their back spot from the very onset of their careers.”
In the summer of 2010, after the program captured their first World Championship title, a win for Senior Elite in the Large Senior All Girl 5 division, the seven made t-shirts with “Future World Champs 2018” on them. Being together for so long Courtney says “we were really able to develop their specialities” which is showcased in this years Senior Elite routine. Pope adds, “by developing strong well rounded athletes together, our routine this season is not centric.” The routine this season features over six center flyers throughout the many sections of stunts, pyramids, and basket tosses.
While the seven have spent the longest time together, they are not trailed by their many other Senior Elite teammates. Pope says “the team is comprised of at least 70% of athletes who at some point in their careers cheered on Youth Elite (Youth Level 5) or Junior Elite or Crush (Junior Level 5).” Pope describes the level of confidence and comfort they have in each other as a direct attribution to the fact that they have been together on many teams, competing next each other. “This group of athletes has always flown more maturely” Pope says of the team. That coupled with the strong senior leadership from veterans she says has been their recipe to harmony, and success for this Senior Elite team.
While many of these athletes are experiencing their first World Championship, Pope too is experiencing a first this year. For the first time since her career began ten seasons ago, Courtney has been training her daughter Kenley for her first World Championship. Courtney says of Kenley, “she makes it easy, she loves it so much.” Kenley, Pope describes as being a huge cheerleader on the floor, supporting her teammates throughout all parts of the routine. Courtney says that this season has brought a new perspective, “on the ride home from practice, Kenley gives me feedback of things that occurred at practice.” Pope says it makes her a better coach, and gives her nostalgic flashbacks to many seasons ago when she coached her sister Kelly Helton (now owner of Cheer Extreme Raleigh).
Pope of the challenges presented by this roster of Senior Elite athletes, “it was hard to figure out who goes where in this routine, because of the exceptional level of well rounded talent.” She credits the strong foundation of bases beneath each of her groups as being integral to the teams ability to execute skills throughout all sections of the routine. Pope speaks of the public fan support that has poured in for this team, her program, and her athletes. Reflecting on their experience in Dallas at the 2018 NCA All Star Nationals in February she says, “to hear what sounded like a chorus in the arena sing your music and support your kids, is a moment I will never forget. To have that level of fan investment is every cheerleaders dream. I haven’t felt like that since Finals of The Cheerleading World Championship in 2010.”
We visited with the seven Senior Elite athletes, who have continued on the same journey from a Mini Team at Cheer Extreme, to one of the World’s Most Iconic teams to learn about their personal take on why this has truly been such a unique experience.
Alexxis Gallagher, 9 year program veteran
Alexxis speaks of her career highlights to include her amazing teammates, and adds her greatest achievement in this entire journey has been “making great friends, while living out our story.” Alexxis says she never anticipated that she would make it this far in her all star cheerleading career, but she always admired the previous Senior Elite teams, and always wanted to push herself to become the best. Thinking of her teammates, and the journey they have undertaken together, “I always think of it as our little family” adding that “it’s comforting knowing someone has your back on and off the mat.” She says that together they’ve achieved so much, the athletes together have won and lost many times over the course of their careers exceeding or pushing a decade. The emphasis on “together” is a theme that runs throughout all of the athletes’ reflections of how unique this experience has been.
Skylar Dorton, 12 year program veteran
Skylar reflects on the most rewarding part of her Cheer Extreme experience as “knowing that I have made forever friends.” She credits longtime Cheer Extreme coach Darnell Harris for pushing her into becoming the cheerleader that she is today. “Because he started stunting with me when I was younger. He has taught me so many skills, and life lessons.” says Skylar of her coach. Skylar says she always looked up to the past Senior Elite athletes, and their success motivated her to be like them. Skylar credits the over a decade she has spent with her teammates through Mini Elite, Youth Elite, Junior Elite and now Senior Elite to the comfort she finds on the floor with them. “It’s comforting knowing what kind of athletes are next to me on the mat.” The longevity of many athletes in this sport is often short lived because of the massive time commitment to training. Skylar says of her teammates, “I believe our bond is special, because we have managed to stick together through all these years and we made it to where we wanted to be.. together.”
Elizabeth George, 11 year program veteran
Reflecting back on her eleven years at the Cheer Extreme program, Elizabeth says “the most rewarding part of my journey are the friends and family I’ve made through this experience, and getting to be on my dream team with them.” Elizabeth credits her coach Courtney for shaping her not only into a strong individual, but a responsible and self-accountable athlete. Of spending the better part of a decade together Elizabeth says, “it’s comforting to know that they have my back no matter what. We know that we can depend on each other, on and off the mat.” Elizabeth reflects on the uniqueness of their experience, “we’re not just 7 athletes, but sisters that have grown up together, and have all worked hard to be on this team together.”
Kenley Pope, 10 year program veteran
It was Kenley Pope’s destiny was to be on Senior Elite. A decision pre-determined from the first days of her life. “After I was born, the first place we stopped on the way home from the hospital was Senior Elite practice.” says Kenley of how long her journey to to the team has been. She adds that she has not missed one practice ever since, (even prior to being eligible for the team). Kenley says she finds comfort from her teammates in that they know each other so well, “they know in a routine where someone needs help, or needs to be lifted up at practice.” Kenley credits her mom, and Coach Courtney for teaching her how to love, and how to be passionate in all parts of cheerleading. The seven have been competing on Level 5 teams for a combined total of an excess of twenty years. Kenley discussed why the seven athletes who have spent all of their all star careers together as being unique because, “it’s rare that kids stay in the same gym for so many years.” She adds, “we’re not ring chasing, we’ve spent our entire childhood together, and we hope to stay together for many years to come.”
Mary Kate Rolland, 9 year program veteran
Mary Kate, a nine season veteran of the Cheer Extreme program says the most rewarding takeaway from her experience has been the “life long friendships, life lessons learned, and the opportunity to achieve goals by competing on some of the most elite teams in cheerleading.” Mary Kate, like many other athletes within the Cheer Extreme program credits Courtney Smith Pope for recognizing her abilities, and pushing her to be her personal best. Mary Kate finds comfort in the athletes she has shared a floor with for the better part of a decade. “I know I can trust them to always do their job” she says of her teammates on Senior Elite. The most unique thing about the seven athletes who have cheered together from Mini Teams, to Senior Elite she says, “it’s cool that we’ve stuck together through the ups and the downs, working towards making our dream team together.”
Maddie Watkins, 9 year program veteran
Maddie finds the greatest reward of her experiences at Cheer Extreme over the last nine years as “the life lessons” and “being pushed a little bit further than what I thought was my limit.” The above coupled with passionate, and personal coaching from gym owner and team coach Courtney Smith Pope have helped her to learn lessons that will stay with her well beyond her career as an all star cheerleader. From early days Maddie says, “I used to tell myself that I had to work as hard as I could so that someday I could make Senior Elite.” Reflecting back on the expectations of her coaches throughout her career, Maddie credits them with developing her mindset to always work and try your hardest. Most fondly Maddie reflects on her six teammates and says, “we have all seen each other grow up, we’ve all seen each other grow as athletes. When you have lived not only your own journey, but seen your teammates through all the years as well it keeps you motivated.” Maddie says she realizes at this point that she’s not only doing this to tell her own story, “but the story of us.”
Maddie Dorton, 10 year program veteran
The most rewarding part of Maddie’s experience is described as the ability to share the same memories with others like herself. “We all have trust in each other, which makes it easier to be a part of a new team” says Maddie of the comfort that comes garnered through her decade of experience in the program with the same teammates. Maddie credits longtime coach Darnell Harris for having taught her about cheerleading and life. “He is a big reason that I am where I am today” she adds. The uniqueness of her experience is found in the fact that “many athletes don’t make it in such a challenge sport for long period of time.” and here she finds herself living and defying the norm with six of her long-time teammates.
Many firsts will be lived out live at The 2018 Cheerleading World Championships. Many athletes together will experience the world’s greatest stage as all eyes turn to watch Cheer Extreme’s New Generation of Senior Elite… the New Generation of X. The team will face a division filled with historically successful program’s each capable of a win at the event, each stacked with seasoned athletes all vying for the top spot in one of the industry’s most watched divisions. The 2018 Cheerleading World Championships is held at Disney’s Walt Disney World Resort, April 28-30, 2018. For full coverage of the event, visit our Worlds Central to see how Senior Elite is doing, and keep an eye on all of your favorite teams and programs.