Freshman cheerleader Danielle Walden invited fans to peer into the lives of the Knights as they prepared for the National Championships Jan. 17-18 with her exclusive online blog. With the finals now in the rearview mirror, she wraps up her blog with a look back at UCF's memorable performance.
Click here for video of UCF's Friday practice at The Venue with several other college teams (Search for UCF)
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The Walden Blog
Monday, Jan. 19th
So, if you have kept up with the latest news then you already know what place we got, but if not I am going to leave you in suspense.
Yesterday morning before nationals I felt completely different than I did for semi finals. Instead of nervousness I felt excitement and readiness to go out on the floor and perform the routine. I couldn't believe that the time was finally here, that all those months of practicing had just flown by like they were days.
We proceeded with the same warm up as Saturday and it went just as well as Saturday. Once we got into the warm up room we "sealed the mat" and focused on our team. We got our jobs done and had time to rest. I had never felt more confident than at that moment once we got off the warm up floor and went to wait to perform. Now, of course I was dancing to music and singing because that is how I calm my nerves but I was still focused on the job that needed to be done on the competition mat. We got closer and closer as each team performed and it was finally our time.
Since we were in Orlando we have a home court advantage and I could definitely tell. I could already hear the crowd chanting UCF, Black and Gold, and the Zombi Nation. We all huddled, the girls all holding hands and the guys surrounding us. Words of encouragement were said and then we all put our hands in the middle, and Keegan Hubbard did our team break. This was our time now.
I can remember standing there at the beginning of the routine and getting butterflies but then blocking it all out and focusing on the 15 people that were on the floor with me. The music started and we took one element at a time. Tumbling finished and the crowd cheered. On to baskets, I give Amy Winn words of encouragement to remind her of the little things to remember in her basket. We went to partner stunts and had a little bobble but nothing that we could not recover from. The first pyramid hit solid and we were soon cheering the words K-N-I-G-H-T-S with the help of our fans. When we ended the cheer I had never heard a crowd scream and cheer as loud as I did at that time. We started our second stunt; my stunt had a little bit of a bobble but we kept our composure and it went great. I knew at that moment that the rest of this routine was going to be solid. The next set of baskets were very good and then on to our final pyramid. I was so excited to end and have Amy Winn up shaking on my leg with joy and that is exactly what happened. We ended and we knew we hit our routine. We all were excited, jumping up and down, hugging each other, and the crowd going crazy.
We went backstage to watch our performance on the monitor that they provide. We complemented on the great things we saw. We hit our routine and although it wasn't flawless it was an exciting and solid performance. It would now be up to the judges. The next 45 minutes felt like the longest minutes of my life. I was ready for awards and wanted to know what the judges thought. When it was time, they brought everyone out on the floor with the trophies in the middle. All of the girls were sitting in front with the guys standing behind.
They started with 14th place. We had made the top 10, then the top five, and top three. All of us girls were squeezing each other's hands, we all wanted so badly to win. Then they said in third place the University of...Central Florida. We all let go of each other and started clapping and smiling. It was not what we wanted but we were happy. Alabama received second and Kentucky was first. I was so proud of our team. Once awards were finished we walked over and congratulated the teams that finished ahead of us. We gathered for pictures and hugged each other because it had been such a great year.
This was my first college nationals and I was just so excited to be there. I knew I was getting the opportunity to be experiencing something that a lot of people don't ever get the chance to do.
We cannot control the outcome of every situation. We can only control our performance and I believe we did a great job. No it wasn't flawless, but our goal was to hit and that is exactly what we did. My old coach used to tell us that, in the years ahead people are not going to remember who got what place but they will remember a great performance and that is what we had. It was creative and there were things that people had never seen before and those are what they are going to remember!
I just can't believe how fast it has flown by. This team has become such a tight family who I could instill my trust in all of them. I am sad to see it go but I'm glad I have such great memories that I will carry with me the rest of my life. This was one of the hardest working and most dedicated teams. We pushed and pushed to be the best. We had laughs, tears, and arguments but in the end we all pulled through and made it as a team and as friends and I could not have imagined it any other way or with any other group of people! (Seniors I wish you the best of luck and thank you for all your guidance!)
I also want to thank you the fans for reading my blog over the past few days and allowing me to share my journey through nationals. I hope that you have enjoyed reading it and if you are an aspiring UCF cheerleader..... keep pushing for it because I never thought that in my wildest dreams I would be where I am today and you can do it too. GO KNIGHTS!
Sunday Morning, Jan. 18th
Excitement, drive, and heart-pounding is all I can feel right now. We have finally made it to finals of the 2009 College National Championships. This is the moment that we have been all been preparing for, for the past several months.
Our performance yesterday for our rehearsal was another step in the right direction for us. After arriving at the Wide World of Sports I began to feel very anxious. I was getting goose bumps, not just because it was freezing outside, but because I couldn't believe that I was actually there. We started our warm up outside and went inside to the official warm up mats for our 10-minute warm up. Noticing all the teams around really put in perspective that it was finally here. I have to be honest I was intimidated, not by the skills that the other teams had, but just seeing other teams that we had to compete against. I had never competed here before so I had to really just focus on everything that I had learned from the veterans on the team about blocking everything out. I did that perfectly in the warm ups, when we waited to go on the warm up mat I had to look at the wall the whole time to avoid watching other teams. When it was finally our warm up time our whole team (including myself) sealed the mat and had a great warm up. Once our warm up was finished we walked down to the hallway to wait for our turn to compete.
This performance was just a rehearsal because we had already made it into finals, however, this did not make it any less nerve racking. Getting closer and closer to perform and a million thoughts were going through my head. To keep calm I danced with Kel Alexander all the way `til we had to perform to keep my nerves down. However, I kept thinking to myself "Why am I nervous? I have done this routine many times."
It was time for us to perform and my heart was pounding but as soon as the music started all of it went away. We got off the floor feeling very confident because we hit everything. It was a great step in the right direction and a big confidence booster for tomorrow. I definitely know for me, that I feel a lot more confident after today's performance because we all went out there on the exact location we will be today and hit the routine.
Last night we had a team meeting but it wasn't a regular informational meeting. It is a tradition on the night before finals that each person including the coaches goes around and says something about the team. This experience showed the closeness of our team and the bonds that we have formed with each other. We are such a strong team that we would do just about anything for each other. Of course there were tears or at least teary eyes but it just showed that everything we had to say was the truth and meant a lot to each and every one of us. It is just a relief to know that there are not 16 individuals going out on the floor today but rather a big FAMILY who instills their trust in each and every person.
Saturday, Jan. 17th
Yesterday our practice with the other schools went very well. We were able to meet and practice with the teams from LSU, University of Tennessee and Wallace State. This was a great experience.
Our warm up was great. Everything hit and was solid. When we ran the routine full out it was not as solid as our warm up. We had a stunt fall and a pyramid bobble. We went and watched the video of the performance, critiqued it and figured out how to fix it. We had an opportunity next to watch the other teams perform. It was refreshing to be able to see new material and see what the other teams were doing. I remember specifically a girl from LSU and how much spirit she had and I thought to myself this is how energetic I want to be on the floor.
Then it was our turn to perform again. We viewed this second time as a simulation of finals. This time we had all the schools watching us plus some of our alumni. I have to admit before going out on the floor I got a little nervous but as soon as I stepped on the floor and the music started all the nerves went away. We went out and were solid with only one small bobble on a pyramid.
We were pleased with our two performances today because we believe we are moving in the right direction.
Every team experiences bumps in the road and it's better to face them now then when we still have time to perfect them. Before we left practice we worked on certain skills. We fixed the problem in the pyramid and as someone in that pyramid I feel a lot more confident that we worked on it.
This practice was such a great experience for me. All of the cheerleaders and coaches from the others schools were so friendly and very respectful.
After practice, Wallace State joined us at Knightros on campus to eat dinner together. I met new people, and it was funny because I met two other girls who love the Twilight Series books. We talked for 20 minutes about how good the books were, how good the movie was, and all the actors/actresses that were in it.
Soon it was time to part ways, we wished each other good luck and it was time to head to the Wide World of Sports. The girls all piled into one van with coach Randy Brown and we sang the whole way down.
After checking into the hotel we headed to the competition venue to watch the partner stunt competition. It looked a lot bigger now that it was filled with people but it got me even more excited. I felt like I could have competed right then and there. Once that was finished we went back to the hotel to have our team meeting, shower, and get a good night's rest.
So, tomorrow is semifinals and I feel we are more prepared than ever. Of course I am nervous but that is only natural; I know that once we start warming up that I will feel completely confident. If we can just remember everything we've practiced and apply that to both semifinals and finals nothing and no one can stand in our way!
Friday, Jan. 16th
Yesterday's practice was just another step in the right direction towards our goal. As I mentioned before, we went to the Wide World of Sports venue to have practice. Because we live in Orlando, this was a great opportunity for us to be able to practice in the exact surroundings which we will be in this weekend.
We arrived at the Wide World of Sports; I was beginning to feel really excited. The first thing I did walking up was imagine all the teams stretching on the sides and walking all around; it made me get butterflies in my stomach. This put my views in perspective about how close nationals really are.
We went up into the exact warm up room that we will be in Saturday and Sunday to have our practice. There were teams already in there practicing as well; this was a great opportunity to practice zoning everything out. The warm up that we had here was solid! Everyone was pumped and ready to run it full out. However, we couldn't get over excited in which we push too much in the routine. Like our coach Linda Gooch always tells us, "Nothing more and nothing less." Again this is exactly what we did at this practice. We ran it full out and hit everything. There was a little bit of a problem in my side's cheer pyramid but we worked on the problem and fixed it before we left the practice. We circled up at the end of practice all having excitement in our eyes. I have to say, at this practice I expected to be a bit nervous but I was just the opposite. Because there were other teams there, instead of being intimidated by them I was excited about showing off our routine!
After practice we walked in front of the floor where we will be performing. I will never forget that feeling when I first saw it. I was taken aback because I couldn't believe that I was standing there about to compete for the College National Championship for UCF. I have to admit, I had never seen the College National Championships in person so to be able to see the floor and arena before competition really helped to calm my nerves. It was a lot to take in; our whole team was standing at the top on the stairs by the railing, looking over at the floor. I could hear little conversations with people, "Oh, there is a castle as the background, knights live in castles," "this is so exciting," and "...our 2009 National Champions are the University of Central Florida." At that point I realized that the team was ready for competition and so was I, I could have competed right then and there but I will save all that adrenaline for Sunday!
I'm really excited about today's practice because this is when we host a practice before nationals for other teams to come practice with us. The schools that are coming are the University of Tennessee, Alabama, LSU, Ohio State and Wallace State. I'm excited about meeting new people and being able to see other team's performance but more importantly to be able to show off ours! We have worked so hard as a team that each time we perform this routine it gets better and better. I can't wait for Sunday to come therefore we can show everyone just how great we are!
Thursday, Jan. 15th
We finished our Wednesday night practice and as I mentioned before it was UCF Cheerleader Alumni Day. This is where all the alumni cheerleaders come back to our practice and watch our routine and give us advice on what we could do and how to handle the whole experience of nationals.
We proceeded with our regular warm-up; however, now trying to block out the outside noise coming from all the spectators. "Seal the mat" is what we tell each other, I mean, it's a good thing to start practicing that now because when we get to nationals it is going to be 10 times louder with a lot more commotion going on. We focused on each other and the job that needed to be done.
Our first warm up went very well. There were a few slip ups here and there but nothing that could fluster us. Like Brian White and Allie Boudreau's elite stunt; it was not perfect during our first warm up but they shook it off and nailed it during our 10 minute warm up. We finished our final warm up and went outside to the hall to make it seem as though we were in the hall for finals.
By this time the alumni had shown up to watch and my heart was beginning to pound harder. The fight song came on (just like they will play it at nationals), we did our team break and set up on the floor. I was kind of nervous by this time, but why? I had done this routine a million times physically and mentally and knew that I could hit it. I felt like I had a big responsibility on my shoulders because the alumni were there and of course I wanted us all to impress them so they could still be proud to say that they were part of the UCF Cheerleading program. Once that music came on, all my nerves went out the window; I had sealed the mat and it seemed like everyone else did as well because we got all the way to the end of the routine, to the ending pyramid and stuck it. We were all excited, I was holding Amy Winn's leg so tight because I thought she was going to shake with joy like she did last time we hit the routine (I have to prepare myself for when that happens at nationals). This again was a big confidence booster, not only could we hit our routine but we could do it in front of an audience who knew what mistakes to look for.
We were able to meet the alumni, some I knew and some I didn't. We introduced ourselves to each of them and they did the same and they gave us feedback on our routine and how to handle this weekend. They all loved our routine and thought we did a great job performing it. One comment that really stuck in my mind was something that Stephan Domenig said. He told us to be focused this weekend. To know why you are there but don't forget to have fun and take the whole experience in. I guess this stuck with me because I always went through practice thinking "Ok, we have to hit the routine. I have to do this or that." Instead I should be thinking "this is such a fun experience" and also look at the wonderful bonds that I have formed with each and every member of the team. I don't want to turn around after Sunday night and realize that it flashed so fast before my eyes, I didn't enjoy it and now it is over. Because of this, for the next four days I am going to try to take in everything that I can and not let my nerves get the best of me.
Starting with Thursday! Thursday we get to go to the Wide World of Sports at Disney where the competition takes place. We are going to do a walk through and a practice right at the site. I'm pretty excited but I know that it will be a lot to take in once I actually get there and see it in person. I mean I have competed there before for cheerleading competitions but nothing as extreme and big as this. But hey; life is all about new experiences and I am ready to explore this one!
According to one of our coaches Mike Pare, we are on top of a mountain peak looking down at everyone. And this is exactly how I feel sitting here right now. After practice today I know that there is nothing that can get in our way and nothing we can't get through, we all are just enjoying it and taking one day at a time knowing that every day we get that much closer to our goal.
We listened to more of the inspirational winning tape. Today was about having positive self motivation. Basically, telling yourself that you can do it instead of thinking negatively. What I took away from it was to tell myself "I can do it" instead of thinking "what happens if something goes wrong." I like to think of myself as an optimistic person but we all have those times in which we wonder about the flukes. I realized today after listening to that, that it is time to get those negative thoughts out of my head, about the what ifs because I know I don't want those what ifs when I walk off the finals floor. I believe in myself and my team that we can do this. According to the message if you believe that you will get something you will achieve it!
Wednesday, Jan. 14th
So, it's Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2009, four days before the College National Finals. "WOW" is all I can think to myself right now. I flashback to last spring when as a high school senior I was just hoping I would make the UCF cheerleading team. Now, here I am on the UCF nationals team about to compete for a national championship in a few short days. My emotions are running wild; excitement, nervousness, pride, but more than anything thankfulness for being able to be on such a devoted team with devoted coaches. As I write over the next few days about my experiences, you too will soon see why we are not just 16 individual cheerleaders but a whole big FAMILY all willing to help and push each other towards the same goal!
On Sunday we had our normal three-hour practice, still hoping to "come in, hit it and leave." We begin with our normal warm up music, starting with the running. It's funny to see how everyone always runs and stretches exactly the same, like a superstition or something. Lauren Whitt is always in front with Keith Gross, Meghan Hays is usually in front of me (sometimes jumping on someone's back), and Anthony McGuire is always next to me so we can talk about how we can't believe we are freshmen on the nationals team. He says every practice like clockwork "Dani, I can't believe I'm here." We tumble to music "Stand up for the Champions." That is so motivational to me because I've seen the picture slide show that Chris Schubert, our photographer, made for the 2007 team and I want so bad for that to be our 2009 team. We go through our normal warm up like what we will do on Saturday. We mark the routine, then visualize, and wait a couple minutes to get used to how the weekend warm ups are going to be. Then we act as though we have just come to the Wide World of Sports (I start to get jitters because it's almost here). 10 minute warm-up is what we call it and then throw it full out!
We were excited on Sunday. The volleyball coach, Mr. Todd Dagenais, came into our practice and talked to us and I think it really helped. He told us things that we didn't realize ourselves. He told us all the other sports at UCF really look up to us because we know what it takes to win a national championship and we know how to work for it. He told us to visualize, right there, hitting our routine Sunday, then sitting for the awards ceremony, and the announcer saying "...and your 2009 National Champions is The University of Central Florida." I got goose bumps, I'm getting them now just thinking about it. The first routine of practice and we hit it (little bobbles, but no falls). We didn't leave after that one, we ran it again, but it was better than the first one. What a great feeling, this was exactly the confidence booster we needed. Because of this practice we knew that we had it in us to hit this routine and stick everything!
Monday, no practice, but it gave me time for myself to really think about everything.
At yesterday's practice, we had a great audience. The women's basketball and softball teams came in to support us. It was exciting for me to be able to perform in front of students from our school and they were wonderful in the way that they cheered so loudly for us. The first run through was not what we wanted it to be. We had both falls and bobbles. We were all upset with that performance. How could we go from doing so well Sunday to this routine? We watched the video, critiqued it, and went out there to do it again. I remember Allie Boudreau telling us before we did it again "Guys, we are better than this." And, we were because we went out on that floor and hit it! At the end of practice we listened to a motivational tape, and we're going to listen to one each day. It talks about how to be a winner and expecting to be a winner. I like it, it drives me "that much more" to win.
Today's practice is UCF Cheerleader Alumni Day. I'm excited because some of them were old coaches of mine or I cheered at the same gym as them when I was younger. What I am most excited about is being able to show them our routine. We already have had a few alumni come up to us and say how creative and difficult our routine is but it will be even better to be able to show more.
I feel like everyone's confidence is growing each and every time we do the routine. I know I can definitely say that about me. At the start of nationals practices I thought to myself "How am I ever going to make it through this?" But I sit here now and think that I am more confident than ever and I know that it will only get stronger by Sunday!
- Danielle Walden