“I opened it, my hands shaking more than I have ever experienced in my life. I quickly clicked the thumbnails to glance through the team as a whole. I didn't see my face. My stomach dropped. I knew this feeling, I have gotten past it before, and I will do it again.”
Four years of that reoccurring feeling—eager, anxious, nervous.
A bright-eyed girl with dreams, dreams that many of the girls that come through the audition doors have.
But her story is different. Her story is just getting started.
The Bow on the Perfect Package
21-year-old Laura sat in the stands of Arrowhead Stadium in the fall of 2011, and as she watched the Chiefs, something else caught her focus.
What transpired outside of the lines is what caught her attention.
"You should do that," a friend said to Laura while pointing to the Kansas City Chiefs cheerleading team along the game day sidelines.
At the age of 9, Laura began dancing, a passion she had since put aside to pursue her undergraduate collegiate studies.
Dance was a full-time job for Laura, accounting for over 40 hours a week throughout high school. With goals of becoming an accredited lawyer by the age of 23, Laura left her dance shoes behind, unaware that she would soon become reacquainted with her former love.
Sparking a shelved interest, Laura showed up for Chiefs cheerleading workshops four months later.
The workshops are a series of tailored training sessions during which Chief Cheer hopefuls gain experience on positional qualities such as communication, fitness and personal training, dance and more.
“I was missing the fun part of life,” Laura said. “I wasn't really sure if I was going to do it or not. I went to my first workshop and was petrified, but that’s when I fell in love with the program.”
Once the program had ended, Laura went through two more weeks of preparation, and then attended her first Chiefs cheerleading auditions.
Hundreds of aspirants, some traveling hundreds of miles, attended the event with hopes of wearing the iconic Chiefs cheer uniform.
The audition is a rigorous process that takes places over three days and challenges each applicant’s physical and mental strength, communication and public speaking abilities, dance skills, NFL knowledge and more.
Laura made it past the first round of tryouts and advanced to the semi-finals, where her mother and father sat proudly in the audience for a public event.
“My parents were the only people I told,” Laura said. “I texted them after the semis were over saying, ‘You guys need to wait for me because I think you guys are going to need to take me home.’ This is a great experience, but I don’t feel like finals are going to happen for me.”
Laura was proven wrong. After an hour of waiting for the tabulated scores, Laura sent her family a text that she would be returning for the next day of final auditions.
“Finals—that's when you really catch the bug,” Laura said. “Just feeling the energy. The love and support from the girls for each other. Then you put on the uniform, and it’s just like the bow on the perfect package of what Chiefs cheer wants to be.”
Laura waited by her computer to see selections appear on the homepage of the Chiefs website.
They’re announced, and she anxiously scrolls through photos to find her own face, double-checking that she didn’t skip a name.
She’s hurt, disappointed, disheartened. Her name didn’t make the final roster.
“I was pretty sad, but also felt really blessed because I didn’t expect to make it to [the finals].”
With the amount of talent coming out to auditions for fewer spots, Stephanie Judah, the Chiefs director of cheer, wanted to create something for those candidates with potential to help mold and develop them while staying connected with Chiefs cheer.
That year, Judah created the training team, a six-month program in which potential candidates train on the areas of the role of Chiefs cheerleader.
Laura was the ideal candidate for the team.
“Training team was great,” Laura said. “It really solidified the fact that I love the program. It sparked there. Your heart really gets invested when you put in that time and that effort.
“I think that was where her love for the program grew even more. More passionate about, ‘I want to do this,’” Judah said. “Training team opened up her eyes to things she needed to improve on.”
Not only did a love for the program develop, but also did a mentorship-turned-friendship.
A former Chiefs cheerleader of seven years, a current attorney and training team coach, Kendrea White, took notice of Laura.
Both having traveled a similar career path, White began mentoring Laura, not only developing her cheer skills, but also providing career guidance.
“I really relate to her because we have gone through similar challenges,” White said. “I think we both teach each other and inspire and motivate each other equally. It's a good, balanced friendship.”
From then on, there was a desire in Laura's heart to strive for what she sought after—to become a Chiefs cheerleader.
Optimistic about her opportunity, Laura attended the 2013 cheer tryouts the following year. With training team experience under her belt, Laura felt prepared for what was to come.
Nudging Feeling of Dance
Another year and the same story. Her face wasn’t there.
That same feeling again—hurt, disappointed, disheartened.
“I knew I wasn’t done,” she later said. “Right away, I knew I wasn’t.”
“Laura kept looking at the bigger picture,” White added. “She didn't let a temporary no define her, and she didn't defeat herself in her thoughts.”
After achieving her goal of graduating law school and passing the Bar exam that fall, Laura could now shift her focus to that nudging feeling of dance.
“I was studying for the bar that summer, so I think I transferred my studying for that to cheer,” Laura said. “I had this huge binder with all these football facts, so I just kind of went deep in to it. I graduated school at that point too, so I was really passionate about getting in.”
It Lit a Fire
With a law degree and months of preparation under her belt, Laura returned in 2014 for her third year of Chiefs cheer auditions.
“I felt like things were slowly starting to come together. I was feeling more comfortable,” Laura said. “Usually when I came through, I was petrified. All up in your head and you lose your confidence. You get unsure of yourself.”
But after entering these tryouts absolutely determined to make her mark on the roster, it happened again.
Disbelief and devastation.
Laura reached the finals for the third year, but fell short of the team roster again.
For the next two years, the same reoccurring letdown struck Laura's dreams.
Four years of reaching finals in the passion she had dreamed of since that day at Arrowhead, and nothing to show for it.
But Laura had a goal, and she refused to settle for anything short of it.
“I had to take some time after to decide, 'What can I work on? What can I improve outside of the Chiefs?’ Laura said.
“Not just dancing, but communication skills, self-confidence. My footprint in the community. I branched out to figure out who I was.”
Chiefs community efforts inspired Laura to pursue volunteer opportunities within her own community.
She became an active volunteer for Habitat for Humanity, and Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA), a national association that supports and promotes court-appointed advocates for abused or neglected children in order to provide children with a safe and healthy environment in permanent homes.
“I really wasn’t focused so much on training for Chiefs, but it was becoming the person I thought would be a good member to the team. A good addition. A good teammate. A good friend to people,” Laura said.
“She didn’t allow missing the team to negatively define her,” White said, “and I believe she discovered what she was really made of and what really mattered in life to her.
“That is what the ideal Chiefs cheerleader is all about—removing yourself from the situation and being able to add value and purpose to another person.”
Laura began to grow.
“I just started spreading my wings a little bit,” Laura added, “and [I knew] the impact I wanted to make on the world, which was sparked by Chiefs.”
“It lit a fire in me,” Laura said. “I knew I wasn’t done when I finished. I'm going to let this strengthen me.”
Standing hidden in the back of the workshops, Laura didn’t announce her potential return to her fifth consecutive cheer tryouts.
“I was trying to keep [my audition] on the down low this time,” Laura said. “I was doing it because I wanted to do it for me and figure out what kind of member I really wanted to be on the team.”
Laura entered the 2016 auditions with a changed approach than in previous years. Something about her was different.
Staff, cheer alumni, friends and even Judah instantly recognized.
“It just felt comfortable—not in a complacent way, but I felt sure of myself,” Laura added. “Even if it didn’t work out, good things were going to happen, and I was going to keep doing things that I was passionate about.”
Her passion conveyed on the stage. Making the first cut, Laura headed into semi-finals, joining veteran cheerleaders for a spot on the team.
On the day of semi-finals, Judah walked into the room of overly anxious candidates who have been tirelessly auditioning since 8am.
She calls this the least favorite part of her job—the letting go of talented hopefuls as she stitches together the perfect candidates for the 2016 Chiefs cheer team.
Judah announced each girl’s number one by one, and Laura listened with her eyes closed, her stomach in knots and her thoughts in disarray.
The look of relief came across Laura's face, but she knew well there wasn’t time for relief.
She had been in this spot five times before and knew this was only the beginning. The true test comes in that final day of auditions.
“SURPRISE! In one hour the 2016 @ChiefsCheer roster will be announced,” read across the Chiefs Twitter account.
The news came as a shock.
“It took everyone completely off guard,” Laura said. “I was at work and got a text from a friend who auditioned. It was actually beautiful because we really only had an hour to experience those extreme butterflies that come before something we had been anticipating all year long.”
The stated posting time of 2:30 p.m. came and went. No team update.
Refresh. Refresh. Refresh.
Texts from other candidates poured in.
"Are you seeing anything?"
"Mine won’t work!"
"Are we sure this isn't a hoax?!”
Then there it was.
Laura's hands trembled as she scrolled through the thumbnails of each girl.
She felt excited to see the faces of new and old friends making the cut, but she was anxious that she couldn’t find her own.
“I didn't see my face. My stomach dropped. I knew this feeling, I have gotten past it before, and I will do it again.”
As she neared the end of the 33 thumbnails, she stopped.
“There I was.”
After five years of dedication, heartbreak, self-reflection and determination, her face appeared on the Kansas City Chiefs website as a 2016 Kansas City Chiefs cheerleader.
Five years from the moment she watched her passion unfold on the sidelines of Arrowhead Stadium, she finally solidified her spot on that field.
“I just sat looking at the screen. The only thing I was aware of was I was still breathing. The rest of the world was gone. Was this real? Maybe it wasn't. I never see my face. But it was real. I actually did it.”
Judah, even in all her experience, had never really seen anything like it.
“She sparkled. Literally, sparkled,” Judah said. “To watch someone grow after all those years, that’s the quality of a person that we want. Someone that isn’t afraid of hard work or to improve and get better. To have a dream and go for it.”
Laura thought back to that first year of tryouts, telling her parents to wait for her because she didn’t think she would return for finals.
This time she called her parents with different news.
“The most special thing about the team being unveiled at such an expected time was I got to pick up my phone, call my mom, and say ‘Mom! I am a Chiefs cheerleader.’
It was only a matter of seconds before the congratulatory calls, texts and tears came in, one of the most special coming from White, her mentor.
”I can't even begin to describe all the emotions I felt when I saw her picture on the website,” White said. “It meant as much for me personally as her friend and mentor as I'm sure it meant for her. I've always known she was capable of making the team, and she is the definition of hard work, growth and perseverance.”
Where many would give up and after their first “No,” Laura became a testament to chasing your dreams and going after what you set your heart and mind on.
“If this dream doesn’t unfold the way you want it to this year and in your heart you still want to do it, don’t give up,” Judah always says. “Do some really good self-reflecting, understand the areas of weakness, and then you've got 364 more days to go after it.”
Looking back to 2011, Judah described Laura as a bright-eyed girl with dreams, like every girl when they come through auditions. While she had the talent and ability, Judah believed this was the year Laura confidence matched her talents.
“I think what was so unique this year was she had such a sense of confidence,” Judah said, “not in an arrogant way. It was a very genuine and humbling. This is the best me I got, and here it is. We couldn’t be more excited and proud to have her on this team, and I feel like this is her year.”
Already a month into her journey, Laura's appreciation and support from the Chiefs organization has grown beyond what she saw in the stands of Arrowhead Stadium in the fall of 2011.
“What it has given me, I can’t thank them enough for that. It grew me into the person I am today. Each year, when I got a no, it made me dive more into who I am. It has created me to be a person that I'm proud of, and you can’t trade that for anything.”
One’s dedication and perseverance distinguishes the strong from the weak.
It was once said that perseverance is failing 19 times and succeeding the 20th. But in Laura's case, she never failed. She blossomed.
“Never give up on something that you truly want. Fight your hardest for it. My reward wasn't making the team. My reward was, each year, becoming more and more of myself. That's the never-ending journey.” - Laura
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