Gina Cournoyer: Cheer is so much more than what happens on the mat

After team dinner, Rocket Cheer head coach Gina Cournoyer (middle of top row) surprises her athletes as they prepare to compete at the Superbowl of all-star cheerleading, the World Championship.

Credit: Kaitlyn Mabe

After team dinner, Rocket Cheer head coach Gina Cournoyer (middle of top row) surprises her athletes as they prepare to compete at the Superbowl of all-star cheerleading, the World Championship.

Kaitlyn Mabe

Almost everyone has had a role model, mentor or someone that inspires them in some aspect of their life. Coaches, throughout their careers in athletics, take on the biggest role in pushing the development of their athletes, not only to perform better in their sport, but also to become an overall better person. Coach Gina Cournoyer has worked tirelessly over the course of 14 years to build her program to reach the elite level her athletes are at today and to shape Rocket Cheer as a family.

“In the 14 years of coaching [and] running the program, one of the biggest lessons I have learned is teamwork,” Cournoyer said. “I am so proud of what our athletes have accomplished on the mat, but more so, what we have done as a community off the mat is what makes it all so special.”

Aside from the countless hours of practicing for big competitions or repeating skill after skill to reach perfection, Rocket Cheer has worked together to create something bigger than a World Championship level program.

“My cheer program has become so much more than just a sports organization,” Cournoyer said. “We truly look out for each other, take care of one another and together, we have done some amazing things. We have raised over $100,000 for Dana Farber, and we have sponsored Christmas for families that would otherwise not be able to provide toys for their kids.”

Accomplishments like these, on and off the competition mat, are what makes Cournoyer’s program so special. The dedication and passion Cournoyer has towards her athletes resembles the type of coach she has become.

“There isn’t a week that goes by that I am not personally touched by the acts of kindness that our Rocket Cheer family are constantly doing for each other and the world around us,” Cournoyer said.

Unlike traditional sports with several months comprising a season and the rest of the year considered “off-season,” all-star cheerleading operates year round. Practices run for hours on end in the three month preparation period, and the nine month competition season requires the highest dedication from these athletes, who must enter a unique new realm of demand.

“In other sports, if someone is not at practice, things can go on as planned. In cheer, if someone is missing, it is impossible to run routines, and because of this, our athletes are held to a very high standard when it comes to their attendance,” Cournoyer said. “All star cheer runs 12 months a year. They spend endless hours in the gym each week and then spend the weekends together traveling the country performing their routine and competing for bids and trophies.”

As her younger teams consecutively reach their highest goal of going to Nationals, her highest level team reaches the success that all-star cheerleaders across the board work to get to. For three years now, Cournoyer, alongside co-coach Dana Bates, has realized the team’s dream of reaching The World Championship and appreciates success in a whole new light.

“Success for me has changed throughout my career. It’s amazing to win competitions, but today, it’s about culture and relationships,” Cournoyer said. “If we can help to make kids responsible, accountable, ready for their future, [then] when they are better human beings because of their time spent with us, we have succeeded.”

As these athletes grow and develop over the course of time, coaches like Cournoyer grow to exceed her leadership standards for not only her, but everyone in her gym.

“At 23 years old, I was put into a leadership role, and I have always felt it was important to be a positive role model to my athletes,” Cournoyer said. “I have learned compassion, teamwork and decision making in high pressure situations. I am constantly learning and evolving.”

As the passion for this sport grows within athletes every season, Cournoyer’s passion does as well. As she watches kids who have been with her since they could walk and now graduate, a door opens for another athlete to fill their shoes, and replace the talent that left. Cournoyer returns to coaching every season with bigger and better things in store to match her athletes’ increasing level of skill and drive.

“Every year, as our older kids graduate, a new batch of kids walks in the door with a new spark and passion for the sport, [and] seeing kids grow confidence in themselves is one of the best parts of my job,” Cournoyer said. “We really are one big family and I feel really blessed that I get to be a part of it year after year.”

Although cheer is a very demanding sport, people who don’t understand the all-star cheer industry have carried harmful stereotypes for decades that undermine the amount of dedication, athleticism, drive and time cheerleaders give for 12 months on repeat. Every year, thousands of teams travel to the World Championships to compete for a title that proves royalty within the industry, which is an opportunity the majority of  athletes don’t experience.

“I find that [the backlash my athletes receive] varies greatly from one town to the next,” Cournoyer said. “In some schools, they are very respected, and in others, it seems like their peers don’t take the time to understand exactly how much is involved and how much athleticism is needed. Cheerleading has come a very long way from pom-poms and football games.”

Through ups and downs, Cournoyer’s love for this sport and her program is what makes coaching so special to her. But the one thing that means more than to her than the love she gives, is the love she receives.

“I think in cheer, because it takes so much dedication, these people really become a family,” Cournoyer said. “It’s all the memories of big wins, or tough losses. Of team dinners and Disney world trips, hard practices and heartbreak. It bonds you to these people forever. It makes you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. It’s the people: staff, athletes and parents. They are my people.”