HANOVER COUNTY, Va. — At Cheer Extreme in Hanover, there is not a touchdown or home run in sight — and you won’t find a field or court either.
But the competition at Cheer Extreme is as demanding as any sport.
“Oh, it is fierce. It is fierce,” said owner Kelly Lunderman. “In here there is a lot going on during a day like today. There are a lot of teams practicing.”
Coach Elizabeth Rafferty pushes her athletes to be their individual best.
“What is not to love about cheerleading?” Rafferty said.
But in her playbook, teamwork is Rule #1.
“It is confidence. It is friendship. It is inclusivity,” Rafferty said.
The former college cheerleader recognized a void in Richmond’s cheer village long ago. One particular group of young women was missing.
A decade ago, Elizabeth Rafferty founded River City Stars. Her nonprofit welcomes athletes of different abilities starting at age five.
“So it was important to me that they had an opportunity to do what everyone else was doing in the all-star cheer world. Because why not,” Rafferty said.
The squad is made up entirely of cheerleaders living with different challenges, from autism to Down syndrome.
“So when I started, I had three girls sign up. And I was like ‘Okay we’re going to do it with three I don’t care,” Rafferty said.
The team, which has grown to 18 members, practices every Sunday.
“They come in the snow. They come in the rain. They come in the summer when it's 100 degrees in the gym. They’re here,” Rafferty said.
Amber Zicafoose has been cheering with Elizabeth Rafferty for nearly 10 years.
“Well, I’ve been a cheerleader since I was three years old actually,” Zicafoose, now 21, said. “We dance. We tumble. We do stunts. We do a lot of cool stuff.”
Elizabeth Rafferty and her coaching staff help the Stars reach heights never before imagined.
“I love the coaches a lot because they’re all so sweet and nice,” Zicafoose said.
The team flourishes on the floor with the backing of every other cheerleader.
Kelly Lunderman, the owner of Extreme Cheer, admires how Elizabeth Rafferty transforms lives.
“They are safe here. It’s like being with 300 family members. And everyone loves them,” Lunderman said. “She’s got the best heart. I watch her with the kids and there is nothing she can’t accomplish with them. Nothing.”
These cheerleaders are demonstrating they belong. And not just at practice.
“I can’t wait for the world to see what they can do. I get so excited when they come. It is so much joy. I’m going to cry. But.”
The Stars want to soar one day in particular.
“Six hundred or 700 teams, and we are going to be one of those teams. And I can’t wait,” Rafferty said.
Richmond is hosting the annual "Aloha Showdown of Cheer."
Competitors cartwheel from New Jersey and South Carolina right into the Richmond Convention Center.
“There are like thousands of cheerleaders here. Thousands of families,” Rafferty said.
While judges score other teams performing inside, the Stars run through their last-minute choreography.
Before a major competition jitters are expected.
“I get nervous. I get butterflies in my stomach because I want them to do the best of their ability,” Rafferty said.
On this day in particular, the Stars brim with confidence.
Katrina Van Huss credits the Stars for allowing her 33-year-old daughter Anna, who lives with Down Syndrome, to thrive.
“If Anna had to choose between Christmas and cheering, Christmas is going to lose,” Van Huss said. “My child has joy. She has a place to be. She has a community. She is happy.”
Finally, the team takes the stage. The Stars make their moves just like practice, but on a much larger stage.
The cheer family from across the mid-Atlantic supports every stunt.
Their performance lasts just 180 seconds. But this moment — one year in the making — will linger a lifetime.
“They were amazing today. Probably one of the best performances we’ve had on the competition floor,” Rafferty said.
The River City Stars are athletes proving they deserve a place at the top of the pyramid.
“Words can’t express the joy and light they bring to me. Every time I see them on the floor I want to cry,” Rafferty said. “There is not a better feeling. There is just not.”
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