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By ASHLEY SCOBY
University of Kentucky cheerleading – the team is known all across the United States as the best in college cheerleading. But how about halfway across the world?
Well, they know about the Cats over there too.
Matej Kavcnik, a current UK cheerleader, knew for years that he wanted to come to Lexington to pursue cheerleading. The only problem? He’s from Slovenia, a small European country between Italy and Croatia with a population of a little over 2 million. Kavcnik had been heavily involved with European cheerleading, but had always dreamed of coming to the University of Kentucky to cheer for the best team in the U.S. in his eyes.
To put it simply, “there’s nowhere else to go if you’re really good,” he said.
Knowing what he wanted was the easy part for Kavcnik; it was actually getting there that took the most work.
KavÄnik was invited to a European cheer competition that was reserved for the best on the continent, and met Dustin Santoni, a former UK cheerleader, there. Santoni invited Kavcnik to come live with him in Arizona for six months, where he would help him prepare for the cheer tryouts that year at UK. Kavcnik dropped out of the University of Ljubljana to pursue this opportunity of a lifetime. He also had to get together $30,000 to be able to come to UK and be a part of the team.
After getting the money and after working with Santoni for six months in Arizona, Kavcnik was suddenly living the dream that he had had for eight years. It was time to really get into full swing as an official UK cheerleader.
And what does that entail? Many are unaware of what exactly goes into that finished product that we all see at UK basketball or football games. The truth is, it takes hours and hours every single day to make the performances as perfect as they can be. UK cheerleaders generally arrive for summer camp in late July/early August, and then get to enjoy a long weekend reserved for a team “retreat.”
“That’s just a team-building thing,” Kavcnik said. ”We’re there for three days. We go to a lake and have boats and everything there. It’s a lot of fun and a lot of team-building stuff. Then we come back here and start working on the Big Blue Madness routine.”
In that routine are usually a few stunts that the cheerleaders would like to include in their Nationals routine. With the national competition happening in January, the team starts prepping a good six months in advance.
Once the majority of UK students go home for winter break, UK cheerleaders are just starting to get to the hardest phase of their practicing. Two-a-days start during winter break. A typical day, according to Kavcnik starts at about 8:30 a.m. There is usually a 3-4 hour practice, a break so that the team can grab some food and sleep, and then another 3-4 hour practice immediately following. The team only gets three days to go home for Christmas, and for someone like KavÄnik whose family is halfway across the world, that short break makes it impossible to see his family during the school year.
Kavcnik said that he hasn’t had a terrible time adjusting to living so far away from his family, partially because he’s living the dream here in the United States. The next step in cheerleading, he said, is to make it an official NCAA and Olympic sport. Cheerleading is currently bidding to be a part of the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“I don’t know what’s going to come first – the NCAA or the Olympics,” Kavcnik said. ”I guess if we come to the Olympics, they’ll have to accept it.”
Since cheerleading is not considered an official NCAA Division I sport in the U.S., cheerleaders don’t actually get full athletic scholarships like many other athletes at the school do. According to the cheerleading scholarship program information on UK Athletics’ website, most cheerleaders’ scholarships only match the cost of in-state tuition. Many of the funds used to pay for these scholarships are based on “funds in the President’s office and the Athletics Association.” Some, much smaller, scholarships are available to cheerleaders through private funds, such as the Mr. and Mrs. Ralph McCracken, Jr. Cheerleading Scholarship Endowment and the Bill Blount, Jr. Memorial Endowment.
Although cheerleading has yet to become a sport in official terms, it’s already a sport (and so much more) to those who participate. Many who aren’t involved with cheerleading still maintain that it will never be a real sport, even if it is eventually sanctioned by the Olympics.
“They should come to our practice,” Kavcnik said. ”They should try. Everybody sees the dancers shaking the poms and everything, but it’s actually really hard.”
Those tough practices and the long hours prepping for the national competition can’t be too difficult for KavÄnik, however. His hardest journey was simply getting the opportunity to do so.Â From Slovenia to Lexington, Ky., Kavcnik is a testament to how global the activity of cheerleading has become, and the rate at which the (unofficial) sport is growing.
Stephanie Johnson describes how hard Dylan Smith worked to get back on the squad after surviving a 44-foot fall. (Gary Moyers videographer)