It was the first time an EVO Athletics all-star cheer squad made The D2 Summit finals.
Cartwheels did not come easy for Ava Custer.
The sixth-grade Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences student started learning cheerleading five years ago, first with tumbling classes, then a half-year program, then a yearlong program. When she first started, she struggled with a few things, she said, including backbends and those pesky cartwheels. Custer had friends outside of cheer who could do them, making her experience that much more frustrating.
“I was like, ‘...What?’ ” Custer said. “My legs just did not work like that.”
It was just a cartwheel, other people would tell her. But it wasn’t just a cartwheel. It was an obstacle in the path of her goal to become the best cheerleader she could be. Custer kept trying, over and over, until she finally landed a perfect one.
One word floated through her mind: “Yay.” It was a mix of accomplishment and relief. She could finally put the cartwheel saga behind her and move onto her next challenge. Over the next few years, Custer’s flexibility increased, as did her lower-body strength. She set sights on becoming a flyer, taking extra classes focusing on her position. This year, Custer tried out for EVO Athletic’s all-star cheerleading program and made the program’s Senior Level 2 team.
On May 12, Custer helped lead the team to a 16th-place finish at The D2 Summit, Varsity Spirit’s national championship event for gyms with one location and 125 or fewer athletes, in Orlando. It was the second time that EVO sent an all-star cheer team to the event (2018), and the first time that a team reached the finals.
“She is one of the most dedicated athletes we have,” cheer program director Jim Lassiter said of Custer. “I don’t think she missed one practice throughout the season. We always say the best ability is availability. She comes every day ready to work. She has grown as much as anybody in her technique and her ability. It shows what hard work does.”
Her above-average flexibility, especially for a flyer, helps Custer make her mark, said Brenda Harrison, EVO’s marketing and operations director (and Custer's former coach). It is conditioning for the body. The more you can stretch, the more feats you can pull off — assuming you have the strength to hold poses and land jumps, even when the pyramid’s base is moving under your feet.
Custer said all-star cheer is different from sideline cheerleading in its required dedication. The moves might be the same, or at least similar, but all-star cheerleaders are at their facilities up to six days a week, making sure every stunt is perfect.
“You spend all season working on a 2.5 minute routine,” Custer said. “It is more of a lifestyle. It is something you are always doing.”
Custer said her favorite moment from the D2 Summit was walking off the floor knowing her squad hit its routine. She and her teammates did the best they could, Custer said, and that matters most at a large-scale event such as the Summit. That sportsmanship — never pouting over scores, simply doing your best and being satisfied with that — is something that will stay with Custer, she said.
The SSAS student said she plans to stick with cheer for a while, but has other things in mind as a career. Namely, Custer wants to work as an educator for people who are deaf. After watching an episode of “Switched at Birth,” on which one of the main characters is deaf when their family is not, Custer started teaching herself American Sign Language, first though Pinterest posts, then summer classes. She is about “half-fluent” right now, she said, but is continuing to improve.
If Custer shows as much determination in that field as she did cheerleading, she will tumble over her goal sooner than later.
There is no rest for EVO’s cheerleaders. Tryouts for next season are ongoing through this week. (For more information, visit evoathletics.com or call 222-0888.)