WARREN, Ohio – Two sets of 20 athletes gather in Warren’s Perkins Park. One set practices at 6 p.m. and the other an hour later.
After some cardio, the girls spread out, clad in neon green shirts and ribbons in their hair. It’s another practice for Cheer Image Iconz, a Warren recreational cheerleading team.
Andrea Hudson, Cheer Image’s founder and head coach, worked at a community center where she met a few girls playing in the gym. Hudson asked if they tried out for their high school’s cheerleading squad. The girls said their school didn’t want them on the team.
“I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And she said, ‘You know, the ghetto girls. Won’t fit in. Won’t pick us,’ ” Hudson remembers.
The conversation inspired Hudson to create a cheer recreational program. For 13 years, she has owned and operated Cheer Image Iconz, which operates in northeastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania.
When the weather turns cold, the group travels to Farrell, Pa., for indoor practice. Because of COVID-19, the group was unable to meet since March. But recently, Hudson and her athletes began holding practices in Perkins Park behind the amphitheater.
Hudson has taught more than 300 athletes over her 18-year coaching career. She coached at Penn State University Shenango, Warren Western Reserve Junior High School, Tri-County All-Stars in Ohio and Pennsylvania and the Warren Little Panthers.
By day, she was a certified community health worker. By night, she was coaching. That is until she was out of work because of the virus. With her day job on hold, Hudson decided to focus on improving the cheer program. She wanted to develop a better understanding of the finances involved in helping a business grow.
Stephanie Gilchrist, director of the Youngstown Business Incubator’s Women in Entrepreneurship program, convinced Hudson to join the program.
“She wanted to know how to grow during the pandemic,” Gilchrist says. “She wanted to understand a little bit more on how to streamline and have multiple streams and all that great stuff that comes along with business.”
In August, Hudson participated in YBI’s nine-week WE Launch program and walked away with a $5,000 grant, which will go toward finding a building to hold practice.
“The support that I received from the YBI and the amazing women that I got a chance to meet really gave me the push and the motivation and the preparedness to apply for the class and continue to go on through the course,” Hudson says.
For the time being, Cheer Image will continue to operate out of the park. Practices are split into two one-hour groups, a beginner level course and a more advanced group of athletes 18 and younger.
The athletes arrive at the park with yoga mats. After running, they begin stretching and practicing specific bends and choreography. Practice ends by pulling it all together for formations.
Nationwide, cheerleading is not considered a sport. That has begun to change in recent years.
In 2017, California enacted the Cheers Act, which officially recognized competitive cheering as a sport. The National Federation of High School Sports, the national governing body of high school athletics, requires California cheering coaches to fulfill cardiovascular, concussion and other safety courses. The courses are required by all high school coaches across the country in case an emergency arises during play or practice.
Those against officially making cheer a sport argue that it’s a recreational activity and a way of working around Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed in 1972. The law requires equal opportunities between male and female sports. Those against argue that classifying a recreational activity as athletics stalls development of other female programs.
Hudson, meanwhile, falls on the other side of the issue. She’s seen cheering turn toward a more physical and training-focused style, similar to other sports.
“These athletes, they do the strength and conditioning training. They do the weight training. They do the lunges,” Hudson says. “They do everything physically demanding, and then we ask them to make sure they smile, make sure you jump high, make sure you tumble straight, make sure you catch the person you just threw up in the air.”
Hudson says the best way to get cheering into the athletics conversation is to disprove the “powder puff image,” which will only come through hard work.
DeVonte’ Parker, Cheer Image’s strength and conditioning coach, works with the athletes at the start of practice. The hard work has paid off over the years. Recently, Cheer Image gained some national recognition for its competitive efforts.
Cheer Image took home a third-place finish at the 2017 One Cheer and Dance Finals, a national competition. Last year, the group won the Lake Erie Cheer and Dance National Championship, its first national title. The most recent victory was in January at Cleveland’s Hard Rockin’ National Cheer and Dance Championship.
“We have some awards under our belt,” Hudson says.
Even with a couple titles, Hudson isn’t resting. The athletes still take to the small, grassy area behind the Warren Community Amphitheatre. They still run, stretch and train. But this time they’re preparing to retain their titles.
Pictured: Andrea Hudson, owner and head coach of Cheer Image Iconz, helps Sariah Johnson perform a back bend during a practice in Perkins Park in Warren. Hudson recently won a grant from the WE Launch program.