Ribbon tied tight.
Smile on her face.
From the outside, cheerleaders are told to look like they have it all together. Competition breeds perfectionism, as every arm movement and jump must be clean and together. Long gone are the days of sideline chants and cheers. These girls work hard for hours every week and compete for championships at the national level in America’s fastest-growing sport.
Yet behind the makeup, ribbons and performance smiles, each girl has a heart that tells a different story.
“They are just like all other girls,” Fellowship of Christian Athletes National Director of Cheerleading Marilou Braswell said. “Suicide rate is high, abuse runs in relationships and there are things happening in their world.”
Every summer at FCA Cheer camp, thousands of girls are met by the shocking reality that they are not supposed to be perfect. They are told of a Father in Heaven who fearfully and wonderfully created them, wants to sweep them off their feet and write them their own love story that involves His eternal love.
With too many stories of redemption to tell, Braswell said that these young cheerleaders come to camp to improve their cheerleading skills, but in the process, are freed from the sin in their lives. From abuse, abortion, parents’ divorce, broken relationships and eating disorders in their everyday lives to the insecurities and perfectionism that comes with being a young woman and specifically a young cheerleader, girls are given the opportunity to present their brokenness at the alter and accept Jesus as Savior in their lives.
Last summer, Braswell said that FCA Cheer had the opportunity to sponsor scholarships for six cheerleaders from inner city Los Angeles. The cheer squad had just lost one of their very own teammates to unexpected heart failure. Of the six girls that came, one rededicated her life to Christ and four accepted Him in their lives for the first time.
“It was a very moving experience for all of us to see that,” Braswell said.
The countless stories are a constant reminder to Braswell of the need to grow the ministry to reach the growing number of cheerleaders.
“There are 400,000 cheerleaders at schools and three million that compete for a gym,” Braswell said. “Cheer has changed a lot, and as a ministry we are trying to stay with the trend.”
In keeping with the cheer trend, FCA Cheer hosts summer camps and FCA Huddles are starting up in gyms across the nations.
A Week of Impact
This summer, FCA Cheer will host nine camps, mostly in the southeast region but also one in Malibu, Calif. Each camp averages between 800 and 1,000 kids and lasts no more than a week. With more camps, the impact is only growing.
“This is the first summer we have more than one camp in a week,” Braswell said. “Our goal is to increase our number of camps this summer and minister to more girls in cheer by increasing our staff.”
Because Braswell has someone on part-time staff currently raising financial funds, FCA Cheer will have three additional camps this summer.
Braswell said that the goal for camps was simply to lead these girls to the Lord by letting them know how much God loves them. By doing this, one of the themes at FCA Cheer camp is called A Father’s Love Letter.
“A lot of the girls don’t even know that God loves them like that,” Braswell said.
Braswell also added that 62 percent of the girls that come to FCA Cheer camps also play another sport. By reaching these girls in a short window of time at camp, the athletes can go to their other sports and share their faith.
“There are more girls in cheer in the U.S. than all other sports combined,” Braswell said. “The impact for me is amazing.”
Taking the Gospel to the Gym
It’s not just the camps that are growing in this ministry. There are now over 25 cheer gyms that affiliate with FCA. In the sport-specific ministry’s fifth year, already thousands have been impacted.
While the normal trend of Huddles are to be based out of schools, the best way to spread the gospel within the sport of cheer is to go straight into the gyms, and Braswell and those that work within FCA cheer recognize this avenue of influence.
“Cheer has changed a lot,” Braswell said. “As a ministry we are trying to stay with trend.”
Every gym runs its Huddle in a different way according to the needs of the gym. Some will pick a time around practice to try to get the most kids to come, while others might just do a devotional with prayer requests. Some do a normal FCA Huddle structure for an hour, yet others might dedicate the last 15 minutes of their practice to encouragement.
These individual FCA Huddles are growing every week, and Braswell tributes this to the local FCA staff getting involved.
“We are all over the country, but I can’t be all over the country.” Braswell said. “Local staff members have been so great about partnering with us.”
For example, Braswell contacted a local staff member about a cheer gym in Birmingham, Ala. He went to the gym and for an hour, trained the Huddle coach and the student leadership for FCA Cheer. By building a relationship with the cheer gym, the FCA director’s local ministry has also been blessed and grown.
“It’s a great example of how sport-specific and local staff work together,” Braswell said.
Anna Watson Speaking Out
FCA Cheer’s monthly newsletter recently featured University of Georgia cheerleader Anna Watson, who shared her story of faith and support for FCA Cheer.
As stated in the newsletter, Watson took the media by storm last year when she flashed her incredibly sculpted arms to the world and shared her story of rejecting a modeling contract that required her to take legal steroids, believing that doing so went against her belief that the body is God’s temple.
“She’s a modern-day Daniel,” Braswell said. “She was featured on Good Morning America. When they asked about her story, she shared her Christian story.”
Last summer, Watson was the speaker featured at many of the FCA Cheerleading camps, sharing her own testimony and encouraging the young cheerleaders.
“After [Braswell] heard my testimony, she saw that the Lord had given me a talent and passion for speaking,” Watson said. “She asked me to come along to several cheer camps and lead Huddle groups and then eventually speak. I would prepare a message and then the Spirit would lead in a way that ministered to the girls.”
Watson testified that the FCA Cheer camp experience was incredibly powerful and enjoyed seeing God communicate His love to each girl there.
Braswell said that this upcoming summer, she and Watson plan on traveling to Italy to do a Cheer camp and spread this ministry internationally.
FCA was able to catch up with Watson and get her thoughts on FCA Cheer as a growing ministry and also allow her to share a bit of her powerful testimony with us.
FCA: What affect has FCA had in your personal relationship with God?
AW: I have grown closer to the LORD by being able to speak about His great and faithful love for me. It has given me the opportunity to reflect on how He has provided for me over the last few years and directed my steps throughout college. I have seen how He has protected me and done what is best for me. Speaking has also helped my unbelief. I feel as though the LORD teaches me lessons and reveals truths to me but sometimes I do not believe how wonderful He really is until I get the chance to tell about all He has done.
FCA: What personal testimony do you use, as a cheerleader, to share with the girls at camp?
AW: I share with the girls how the LORD changed my desires and heart towards cheering and the talents He has given me. When I first started cheering in college, I had my heart set on winning and wanted recognition for my skills. I wanted to do things my way and look out for me first and then give the LORD His portion. I lost sight of my purpose of being a light. During my first year I experienced lots of challenges and the LORD took away my skills and confidence in my own abilities diminished. He showed me that all I have comes from Him and my value is found in my identity in Christ. My talents and time spent perfecting them mean nothing if I am trying to use them for myself. He turned my world upside down and took away what I thought was most important in my life.
By doing that, He gave me the greatest blessing. I saw that cheering and my skills were a gift from Him, and the only way I would truly be able to enjoy them was if I gave them back to Him. Being the best on my team or winning a national title soon began to fade in the light of His glory. I saw that cheerleading was a tool that I could use to love others and be a light for the Kingdom. It was a platform from where I could share about His goodness. After several years and lots of battling and failing, the LORD succeeded to change my heart. I no longer cheer to win and to make my name known. I now delight in using the talents He has given me as a way to point to Him. My goal is to win hearts for the Kingdom forever instead of a ring for my finger that will one day lose its value.
FCA: What pressures have you experienced as a cheerleader, in terms of body image and perfection?
AW: That has been a huge struggle for me. I never thought about body image or really put too much emphasis on perfecting that area of my life until I got to college. I have always struggled with perfectionism and it eventually found its way into my life in the form of desiring a perfect body. I have always been active and been in great shape, but when I went to cheer my first year in college I saw a new form of being in shape. I saw girls with extremely low body fat who were great at their sport. When I first saw these girls I thought they looked unhealthy but eventually I ended up looking like them. With the stresses of college and trying to maintain good grades and a highly coveted scholarship for cheerleading bearing down on me, I had to find a way to relieve that burden and did so through exercise. I started going to the gym to “relieve stress and clear my mind,” but eventually got addicted to the effects it had on my body. Losing weight and getting smaller was not something I set out to do but liked once I saw it happening. I soon became obsessed with staying small and tried to control what I ate and how much I exercised so I would not gain weight. I didn’t realize exercise could become unhealthy and addictive. This form of “in shape” that I saw in my teammates was not a good shape to be in at all.
Eventually, I realized what I was doing was causing me to be tired and lose strength. With the help of friends and the LORD, I was able to see that this addictive behavior was irrational and harmful and learned how to enjoy exercise without obsessing over it. I now see that these girls and I struggled with desiring a perfect body, because it is something the sport unintentionally deems as valuable. The girls who are the smallest or fit a certain persona or stereotype seem to be the ones getting the attention and acclaim. I am glad the LORD allowed me to struggle with this so that I know how to recognize the issue in other girls. I pray that He uses my experience to help others break the chains of oppression that come from desiring something that they can never attain. From this I learned that what the LORD sees is beautiful is not necessarily what the worlds says is beautiful, but is something that will never fade and can never be lost.
FCA: What is the potential impact of FCA Cheer for God’s kingdom?
AW: The LORD told me that He created me to encourage others. I think it is so neat how He has placed me in an environment where that is my main role! As cheerleaders we have the opportunity to lift the spirits of those around us and have a platform to display Christ’s love and grace. FCA has the chance to minister to girls with hearts made to encourage and serve others. If they are able to hear about their great encourager and understand their higher calling to love others for the sake of Christ’s Kingdom, we will have an army of athletes shouting His praises from stadiums and sidelines all over the country.
FCA Cheer Gyms
|808 All-Stars||Honolulu, Hawaii|
|Ace Gadsden||Rainbow City, Ala.|
|Carolina Spirit All-Stars||Winston-Salem, N.C.|
|Charlotte All-Stars||Charlotte, N.C.|
|Cheer Corps All-Stars||Albemarle, N.C.|
|Cheer Force One Mobile||Mobile, Ala.|
|Cheer Infinity||Wilmington, N.C.|
|Cheer One Ocean Springs||Ocean Springs, Miss.|
|Florida Top Dog All-Stars||Palm Harbor, Fla.|
|GEMS||Locust Grove, Ga.|
|Greensboro All-Stars||Greensboro, N.C.|
|Lynn Camp H.S. Cheer||Corbin, Ky.|
|Maryland Christian Saints||Jarrettsville, Md.|
|Oconee Gymnastics||Watkinsville, Ga.|
|OK Twisters||Norman, Okla.|
|Premier Cheer||Ijamsville, Md.|
|Prodigy All-Stars||Concord, N.C.|
|Rock Solid All-Stars||Pinellas Park, Fla.|
|Spring Creek Athletics||Tomball, Texas|
|Take Flight Cheer FCA||Sioux City, Iowa|
|XPA All-Stars||Harvest, Ala.|