By Maggie Fipps
Ethan Cunningham stands out in the crowd. Maybe it’s his confidence that exudes from his friendly demeanor. Or his distinct style, complete with a Trader Joe’s tote bag. Or his Instagram profile, which features pictures of him and his girlfriend alongside images from classic movies like “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Or his love of kombucha, which he detailed with the same love as a wine connoisseur.
“I kept sipping on it, and the more I drank it, the more I enjoyed it,” Cunningham said.
Or perhaps his most interesting hobby, cheerleading, which he came to enjoy as slowly as kombucha.
Not only is Cunningham the only male member of Cedarville’s cheer team, but his college cheer experience is his first ever in the sport. He stumbled into tumbling in third grade, as he dabbled with the bars, mats and beams at gymnastics. Here, his love for stunting grew, which incidentally is an integral part of cheerleading. However, growing up he didn’t get to use the skills much except as an occasional party trick. Evidently, tumbling is like riding a bike, once you learn, you never forget it. A friend convinced him to come to an open gym for the cheer team at the beginning of this school year.
“I was just messing around and the coach said, ‘Can you please join?’” Cunningham said.
Cunningham was indecisive. Did he have enough time or talent to commit to a sport? Finally, he came down to a crucial question.
“What’s the worst that could happen? So I said yes,” Cunningham said.
The core aspects of cheer are different depending on the context. At Cedarville, they cheer on the sidelines at basketball games and incorporate chants, dances and pompoms to spur on large crowds.
“Our ultimate goal is to support the pep band and the student section’s efforts and get the energy going at games,” said Abigail Pleiman, co-captain of the team.
They also do shows at halftime or school events that feature tumbling and stunts, which is where Ethan’s role is crucial.
“He’s been good for stunting and tumbling,” said Ashlyn Staggs, the other co-captain of the team. “It’s nice having guys for strength. Usually, they’re better for basing and Ethan can tumble, so that’s a good asset.”
Cedarville cheer is considered a sport at Cedarville University, with a 10-person team for the 2022-2023 season. However, its numbers and events have dwindled over the years with changes in coaching.
“It used to be more fun stunting and more people who like to tumble and are willing to put in the commitment for it,” Staggs said. “It does take commitment if you want to be a good team cohesively working together. I think that people who are in charge want it to be more of a stunt-based thing, and I hope they can eventually get there.”
As Cedarville began to build the program up, the 2022-2023 team was comprised of a lot of new faces, including Cunningham.
“A lot of people start out really young, but with a fresh set of people who’ve never cheered before, it’s teaching the basics and being able to do it well,” Staggs said.
With the potential for growth comes the potential for frustration and failure. Cunningham’s optimism has served him well as he develops as a teammate and athlete.
“Whenever I would mess up doing tumbling or some flip, I would think ‘Gosh, I’m the worst person ever at this’,” said Cunningham. “And other times I would do things that I had never done for a stunt and I’d be like ‘Oh my gosh! This is great I’m doing really well.’”
“I had to get over this hump of thinking you’re not going to be good at everything as soon as you start doing it.”
In cheer, mental blocks can become impenetrable after someone messes up or injures themselves doing a roundoff or flip. At one practice, Staggs was struggling to perform a round-off tuck. Discouraged, she began to move on to the next move, but Cunningham stopped her.
“So I’m going to count to three, when I say three, go,” Cunningham said.
Staggs still hesitated, but he wouldn’t let her leave. The countdown continued, followed by a pep talk.
“You’ve done this so many times before. You know you can do it, your body remembers how to do it, so just do it,” said Cunningham.
Deep down, Staggs knew she could do it too.
“His main thing is: it’s not that serious,” Staggs said. “He helps you to realize your potential and overall help to get through things, whether it’s personal or the whole team.”
This mindset helps Cunningham as well, especially in moments of failure.
Earlier in the year at Moonlight Madness, which is a bit of a hype session for Cedarville’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, the cheer team performed a halftime show.
The dark gym, fog machines and flashing lights provided a dramatic ambiance, but it was not necessarily the most conducive for tumbling. In the middle of the routine, Cunningham tumbled across the middle of the mat a little too zealously.
“I don’t know why in the moment I was just overconfident and I thought ‘Yeah, I’m going to add one more thing.’” Cunningham said. “I landed and just completely shot back and fell over. It was so funny. And some people afterward asked ‘did you roll your ankle?’ No, I was just being stupid.”
The friendly community of the cheer team has felt like home for Cunningham, as he grew up with three sisters. Pleiman feels that he brings a balance to the team, literally and figuratively.
“He cools us down with all of our estrogen, shifting the energy to be more relaxed and calm,” Pleiman said. “He’s also protective like when we do the stunt, he’s usually the first one to catch someone if they fall. He’s there to support us physically and mentally”
Cheer relies heavily on trust. As they lift their flyers high into the air, it is imperative that they lift each other up emotionally as well.
“One of the biggest things that formed our community was our stunting groups because we’re practicing with the same group,” Pleiman said. “We’re learning together and celebrating together and getting to know one another.”
As Cunningham looks back on the season, he is proud of the ways he has grown on the team.
“It has taught me to look at other people’s perspectives in a group setting and be willing to try something even if I don’t agree with you,” Cunningham said.
To any that are considering cheer or kombucha, Cunningham’s advice is the same:
“Just try it!”
Maggie Fipps is a sophomore Journalism student and the Sports Editor of Cedars. She enjoys playing the piano and thrifting, and you may spot her around campus sporting Packers gear head to toe.