Progress over perfection: How Foundation Academy cheer became world champions

In a season full of adversity, Foundation Academy cheer was able to rally and win every major championship.

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Perfection is a tricky concept. Striving for it often leads to the inability to reach it, because ultimately no matter how hard we try, humans are imperfect.

Hope Church Lead Pastor Wesley Beacham knows this, so when he sent the Foundation Academy cheerleading team a video to motivate the Lions before their last competition of the season, his message in the video was simple: Progress over perfection.

“You have to keep on going,” Beacham said. “Always keep on going. The perfect team doesn’t win. The team that keeps on going — they win. You guys are so close to the very end of the season. You guys have done so well. I’m so proud of you guys, but it’s (about) progress, it’s not perfection. So when things happen today, they don’t go like normal, just keep on going. … It’s the ones that keep on going that win the race. It’s not the fastest, it’s the ones that keep on going.”

And that’s just what they did.

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When it was all said and done, the Lions claimed another championship during a historic 2023-24 season that saw them win a fifth consecutive regional championship, third consecutive FHSAA state championship, the NHSCC national championship and the WSC world championship.

“Pastor Wes has always been a big supporter of ours, he comes before every competition, prays with our girls, and kind of gives them a little encouragement and a little message,” Foundation Academy cheerleading co-coach Kristin Johnson said. “In our final performance, it was not perfect. We had a couple of mistakes that obviously you don’t want to have. We weren’t sure if we were even going to be in contention. … But after they performed, the girls were upset, and we were walking to our next performance, and I remembered Pastor Wes’ words, and we talked about it. I told them, ‘What just happened? You weren’t perfect, but you kept moving. You finished strong. That is what the judges are going to remember.’”

“It doesn’t seem real,” Foundation co-coach Rachel Carey said of the team’s accomplishments. “We obviously wanted our girls to do well, we worked hard and we had goals in mind, but I think both me and Kristin never anticipated any of this. We both keep saying this feels like a dream. We can’t believe it happened. But I guess it makes sense with all the hard work that the girls put in.”

Adversity makes champions

Despite sweeping each of those competitions and establishing itself as one of the best cheerleading teams in the world, one of the reasons it may feel like a dream to the Lions coaches is this season wasn’t perfect. Far from it, actually. 

“This season in general has probably been the most tumultuous season of both of our coaching careers,” Johnson said. 

“We started the season, not sure what avenue we were going down, thinking we were going to be in one division, and then … ending up in a totally different division with not all the same athletes. Then to have this much success, I don’t know, it’s just incredible. … We literally went from thinking we had to these 26 girls to only having 19 to compete with at states.”

The Lions went from expecting to compete in the extra-large, non-tumbling division but ended up with a roster of 19 and competing in the large group. 

This transition sounds simple, but it isn’t. The changing number of athletes on the team means routines developed in the offseason had to be altered, if not completely scratched, to fit not only the number of athletes but also their skill levels. 

Although this Foundation team was able to adjust to its new circumstances of competing in the smaller division, the biggest issue it faced was that two of the 19 athletes had to become reserves.

That didn’t sit well with the team and coaches. 

So, when they had the chance to bring those two girls in to compete at the national and world competitions — even if it meant changing their entire routine, there was no hesitation. 

“After states, Rachel and I sat down and we asked (ourselves), ‘Is there any way we can at least get these girls to compete with us in these last two competitions?’” Johnson said. “What it took was us having to change our routine after states … and compete it for the first time that weekend. Essentially, it gave us four practices to change the routine, add these girls in and make sure everything worked. And it did.

“We felt like even though they were young and they were new to the team, that they still deserved an opportunity,” Johnson said. “Every girl (who) ended up with us for the long haul and stuck it out through the thick and thin of this season … brought something that God intended them to bring to the mat, and without every single one of them, none of this would have been possible.”

The building of a dynasty

With the 2023-24 season over, the Lions can take a step back and not only marvel at their accomplishments but also appreciate the adversity they went through to get there. 

“The success we had this season wasn’t just because of this year’s group; this came because of five years of girls putting in the work,” Carey said. “We’re very systematic about improving each year. We want the girls to work on skills we know that will build upon the ones we focused on the year before.” 

For Carey, one of the biggest reasons for the program’s success is the trust they have put into both her and Johnson as coaches.  

“These girls ... have had so much faith in me as a coach and just the overall support from these families and even the school to have trusted me and Kristin to build the program into what it is now, has been amazing,” Carey said. “We’ve had our hard days, and we’ve haven’t always liked each other. But at the end of the day, we’ve just had faith in each other, and I think that’s why we’ve gotten so far.”

Freshman Grace O’Hey, now in her third season as a member of the team, has seen what can happen when a team puts its faith in the right coaches.

“When I first joined the team, I didn’t really know anything,” O’Hey said. “I was just a little baby; I was lost. Honestly, I had no idea any of this would happen. … But by the end to see what we’ve accomplished together these past few years has been truly amazing.”

Sophomore Abbey Langhoff had a similar disbelief of the Lions’ accomplishments when looking back on her time with the program. 

“I started my sixth-grade year, and if I were to go back and tell myself in sixth grade that all this would have happened, I would have called myself crazy,” Langhoff said. “In these last couple of years, like I knew that it was possible to win nationals and worlds, but the fact that it actually happened is just insane. It’s hard to believe how far we have gotten.”

This Foundation team will graduate eight seniors and is expecting to lose a total 12 athletes, but given its success, don’t expect its dynasty to slow down. 

“Yes, we’re going to lose a lot of seniors this year, and this was a very special group,” O’Hey said. “But for us, as underclassmen, I feel like now it’s time to put in even more work and become the leaders of the team. It’s time to show up for the younger girls on the team, like this group of seniors did for us.”

Sam Albuquerque is the Sports Editor for the Orange Observer. Please contact him with story ideas, results and statistics.

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Sam Albuquerque

A native of João Pessoa, Brazil, Sam Albuquerque moved in 1997 to Central Florida as a kid. After earning a communications degree in 2016 from the University of Central Florida, he started his career covering sports as a producer for a local radio station, ESPN 580 Orlando. He went on to earn a master’s degree in editorial journalism from Northwestern University, before moving to South Carolina to cover local sports for the USA Today Network’s Spartanburg Herald-Journal. When he’s not working, you can find him spending time with his lovely wife, Sarah, newborn son, Noah, and dog named Skulí.

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