Dozens of sneakers scampered across the blue-matted floor as music piped up and young voices chanted, “Winter Park Cheer is here to show you all we are something to fear.”
In the waiting room, a handful of mothers watched as their daughters erupted into their routine in unison in the Winter Park Cheer Athletics gym on Thursday, April 7. With clenched fists, flyers shot into the air, smiles spread across their faces.
“Orange and black, the Stars are back!”
The all-star youth team, 19 girls ages 8-12, are coming to the end of an exciting season. On Feb. 13, they took home the title of Universal Cheerleaders Association National Champions, something that hasn’t been done before in the Winter Park area.
Candace Guilford, director of Winter Park Cheer Athletics and head coach to the four all-star teams that use the facility, recalled just how incredible it was to take a two-year-old team to compete and bring them back as National Champions.
“My legs were numb; I thought I was going to pass out. It was a moment I’ll never forget.”
How it all started
Guilford spent the majority of her life cheering. She cheered her way through Winter Park High School and continued the sport in her college years at Valdosta State University. In 1997, she assisted her older sister, Wildcats coach Angela Ryan, with the Winter Park high school team.
In 2009, Guilford left the Wildcats for a different career opportunity. Her father opened the Winter Park Cheer Athletics gym in December 2009, and she became director of the facility.
The gym has come a long way in just two years, hosting the three Wildcats teams: freshmen, JV and varsity, along with four all-star teams, ranging from 8- to 18-year-olds. The gym also hosts classes and private sessions for children and teens, some from outside of the Winter Park community.
“We’re nationally ranked coaches, so I have girls who drive from all over to come train here,” Guilford said.
After the results of this year’s UCA competition, it’ll be no surprise if the number of girls using Cheer Athletics increases. Being so new, this was the first year the gym brought girls to such a competitive competition.
“I had tried for so many years to win the national title at the high school level and it never happened,” Guilford said. “I kept saying I’m
chasing a dream that’s never going to happen.”
The crowning moment
But as the team stood in a circle, heads bent and hands squeezing those next to them, Guilford’s dream was finally realized. “They count it down, so you’re praying you don’t hear your name, because you don’t want to hear your name up until that point — you want to be the last name called.”
Standing behind Guilford was assistant coach Sam DiJune, a Valencia sophomore transferring to the University of Central Florida next year to join its cheer team. Wearing his lucky orange underwear, he stood with the team, waiting for the results.
“For this being the first team I’ve ever coached, it was really emotional. Not only was I proud of myself, it was just the overwhelming pride for the team and the girls,” DiJune said.
Guilford’s 9-year-old daughter, Addison, is on the youth team. “I was very proud of myself for a few days,” she said.
Taylor Smith, 10, said she was confident the day of the competition. “I prayed that we were going to do good and that we would win first place,” she said.
“I felt like he answered my prayers and gave it to us.”