Former Southern Gymnast Turns Cheerleader at Vanderbilt University

By DAVID BIGGY | Nov 29, 2017
Courtesy of: Vanderbilt University Spirit After competing in gymnastics for most of her life until this fall, former Southern Regional student-athlete Ashley Hemenway is enjoying a new experience as a cheerleader at Vanderbilt University.

Before traveling to Nashville, Tenn., last May, Ashley Hemenway took a crash course in stunting with the Southern Regional High School cheerleaders.

“I was going for my visit to Vanderbilt University, and it was the same time as cheer tryouts,” she said. “But before I left, I had to learn how to stunt. So I spent a day with the Southern cheerleaders and they taught me about stunting. It was hard to get the hang of it at first, but I figured it out pretty quick.”

To that point in her life, Hemenway had never been a cheerleader. She had spent most of her life competing in gymnastics. But since her gymnastics career had ended with the culmination of her senior season last fall, Hemenway was looking for something to do outside the classroom and somehow be part of a team again.

“Vanderbilt doesn’t have any kind of gymnastics program and I thought about some kind of intramural sport, but I just couldn’t settle on one,” she said. “So I thought cheer might be more fun. I’ve always had something to take up a huge chunk of my time outside of class, so I thought it would be cool to travel and be on the sidelines for football games.”

Given her gymnastics background, there was no question she had the athleticism to make the switch to cheer. Still, she had a bit of a learning curve.

“I learned that the movements in cheer are more rigid, whereas in gymnastics the movements are more fluid,” she said. “The tumbling didn’t take long to get. It was more the standing tumbling that I had to get used to. In gymnastics, a lot of the tumbling is generated by movement so it’s a little different.”

Nonetheless, after going through a clinic to learn all the material – including the Vanderbilt Commodores’ fight song, “Dynamite” – Ashley tried out for spirit coordinator and head coach Danielle Eckert’s squad and earned a spot. Then the fun began.

“Coach E is a bodybuilder, so our workouts are really hard,” Ashley said. “She’s intense, but it’s really cool to be a part of a team like this one. All the seniors are great. Everybody is like a family who looks out for you. It’s all been a great experience so far.”

Of course, football in the SEC is excellent, so the opportunities to travel to and be inside some of college football’s biggest and best venues is a special thing unto itself. After being part of the squad – not all the cheerleaders travel for away games – that traveled to relatively nearby Middle Tennessee State, Hemenway’s first major road trip was to Vaught-Hemingway Stadium in Oxford, Miss., the home of the University of Mississippi.

“That was a lot of fun and that place was huge,” she said of the 64,000-plus-seat venue. “Everybody there treated us so nice, and they brought us to this big room in the stadium for a huge taco buffet. It was serious stuff. I couldn’t believe it.”

Unfortunately, the Commodores were in the midst of a five-game losing streak – during which they got swamped by then-No. 1 Alabama, then-No. 21 Florida and then-No. 5 Georgia the previous three weeks – and the cheerleaders had very little to make noise about, but Hemenway enjoyed the atmosphere of SEC football. But now it’s onto basketball season, and she’s looking forward to being in the arenas to cheer on both the men’s and women’s programs.

“I like the vibe of the football stadium,” she said. “But I’ve already done two games for basketball season, and, so far, I really like the feel inside the arena – especially in our arena, because where we set up it’s right in front of the student section. So it’s loud and wild and just a lot of fun.”

As for life at the private university of some 6,800 undergraduate students, the Southern grad has adjusted well. All the freshmen live in one section of the campus, so making friends has been somewhat easy. Unfortunately, because she’s been so busy this year, Hemenway hasn’t been able to explore too much of Nashville, but that time is coming, she said.

“Nashville is such an up and coming city, evolving and changing a lot,” said Hemenway, who’s studying medicine, health and society as part of a pre-med track. “There are a lot of younger people around here and the music scene is great. The whole country music part is more touristy, so I don’t have that much interest in that aspect of the city. But every music artist I like will be here at some point, so I’m planning to get out a lot more after basketball season.”

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