Monica Aldama is a legend in the sport of competitive cheerleading, but you probably never heard her name before the Netflix docuseries “Cheer” debuted earlier this year. If there is a Pat Summit, Mike Krzyzewski or Phil Jackson in the sport it’s Aldama. Since she took over as coach of Navarro College’s cheer program the school has won 14 national championships since 2000 alone. She’s built a dynasty and, as the series chronicled, a family.
Through the stories of students such as Jerry Harris, Gabi Butler, Morgan Simianer, Lexi Brumback and La’Darius Marshall, the difficulty of the sport and the toll it takes on its participants comes to light. And pushing them to win again and again is Aldama. A Texas native who, along with the team, found herself and her program spotlighted on television talk shows from coast to coast.
Every year Navarro College has dominated the annual NCA College Championships held in Daytona, Florida. When the COVID pandemic hit in mid-March it forced the event’s cancelation and the postponement of the team’s quest for a threepeat. That was the starting point of our conversation last month.
The Playlist: Hey Monica, how are you doing?
Monica Aldama: I’m doing well. How are you?
Pretty good. Thanks so much for taking the time today.
So what is the current state of cheerleading in this coronavirus pandemic? I know that the national championship was canceled, but how is that affecting the student’s eligibility? Can they return for another season? Are there rules as in the NCAA?
Yeah, we definitely have rules, they don’t fall under for us in NCAA, they fall under the NCA rules that we follow. So cheerleaders do get five years of eligibility to compete and they can compete for three of those at the junior college level. So to actually use your year of eligibility, you would actually have to compete. So, even though these kids have been here for a whole year doing our cheerleading responsibilities for the college per se cheering at football games and cheering at volleyball and basketball and soccer and all the community service and stuff that we’ve done, that doesn’t take away their eligibility, actually competing does. So since we didn’t have an opportunity to do that, they actually do still have that year of eligibility left. I mean I had some kids that were graduating and are moving on because of course it doesn’t make sense to come back. But I do have some that decided to stay a third year that still had classes to take because they wanted to be able to use their eligibility here since they missed out competing. But yeah, they’re not losing their year of eligibility for NCA College Nationals because we did not get to actually compete.
How tough was that? How close were you guys to actually going to Daytona before the announcement came?
Well, we had actually just finished up what we kind of call hell week, which is our spring break, which you know, supposed to be fun but it’s called hell week because we practice all day. They don’t have class at that time so they can devote the entire day to different areas that we need to work on, so we had a very successful week. They practice starting that Friday when they get out of class then we practice two times that day and then multiple practices each day until Wednesday. Then I give them Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday off just to kind of recover their bodies. And it’s basically the only downtime they’re going to have until after we compete, because we’ll hit it heavy when they get back. But we had a very successful spring break practice. We had a lot of details we still wanted to clean up, but if we had to go compete right then, we could have. I mean, we were that prepared. We were feeling really good about where we were at. We had done a ton of full outs and we just felt really good, really prepared. And that Thursday, so I let them leave that Wednesday and that Thursday, I don’t know if you remember or not, but that’s kind of when things started falling apart. It’s when the NBA got canceled and it caused a lot of anxiety suddenly because the day before we were fine. We had finished up practice, we were feeling great and then Thursday came along and all of this uncertainty started kind of filling up the air around us and we were feeling very anxious and everything was kind of feeling out of our control. So Andy, my assistant, he and I were meeting every day to kind of just discuss it and go over what we thought might be happening and it was just kind of built from there. And then by that Sunday, that’s when we got the news that night that they were going to be canceling Daytona. It just happened so fast. And for me personally, I’m so used to being in control of everything. I can have a plan. Even if something happens, I go straight to plan B and plan C if I need to. But because it was just so uncertain and things were changing every single day, we didn’t even feel like we could do, we didn’t even know what a plan B would even be. So it was definitely a lot of anxiety on us. And then I think I was still in a lot of business mode on Sunday, so I was really just thinking logistics. I didn’t let the sadness part hit me until the next day when I saw the team. It was just, instead of meeting for practice that Monday, we met and had our final team meeting, they turned in uniforms and it was a really sad day.
I remember watching you do all that press for the show in January and February. You guys are in New York and all those places all I kept thinking was, “Wait, she’s a coach. All she’s thinking about is I should not be here. I should be working with my students, not doing this.” And after how great your hell week was I can only imagine you must’ve been like, “Yes, we made it through it. Somehow it all worked out.” And then this to hit, it almost must’ve been in a way like a double whammy. You’ve somehow gotten through the biggest spotlight your program that it has ever had, but you’d hit your goals to only have it pulled away from you.
Absolutely. I mean it’s been a crazy semester, unlike any other obviously, but we told [the team] upfront, we will do what we can, but we definitely knew where we’re at. We kind of felt like we were a little bit ahead before Christmas break with some of the skills that we needed to have prepared, so we knew how much time we could give up right there early on and when we needed to be back. I was never worried about feeling like I was behind or anything. I knew exactly where we needed to be every single week and I made sure we hit those milestones. So it was just exhausting more so than anything because we were all working so hard, not just in practice but outside of practice. Even after we got back from New York, we were still doing interviews here in Corsicana, mostly on the phone or we had people come in here. We were still super busy before practice, after practice and then during our practices, so it was a lot, but the thing about us as you know, we are definitely super competitive and we’re not going to let anything make us lose our focus.
Obviously, you have the reputation as the number one cheer school in the country, but now you’ve had millions of students and cheerleaders from around the country watching the show. Did your submissions explode?
Yeah, I mean, we even did our trials differently this year and it’s actually a blessing in disguise because we obviously had no idea that this pandemic was going to hit. Normally, we do our trials after we get back from the competition on a weekend and because of the timing of when Daytona fell this year, we kind of had re-evaluated how we wanted to do it, so we were just kind of giving this a try. We had clinics throughout the year that were basically recruiting clinics that were open to high school-aged kids, but then we had a tryout opportunity at the end. We’ve had five of those before the pandemic hit and after the show came out it’s an online registration. Every day it was just multiple registrations coming in and so we finally just had to close them all and it got really crazy. Definitely way more than in the past and Andy and I are actually up here in my office working on our new team as we speak. But I mean it’s a great problem to have, right?
No doubt. I wanted to ask about the show itself. How did you get approached and in your mind before you saw the show, what did you think the show was going to be?
The producers of “Last Chance U,” which [follows] junior college football, contacted me in the fall of 2017, so I mean, we’ve been working on this project for quite some time and they said they were interested in doing a show on cheerleading. I had actually just watched “Last Chance U,” so I was familiar with their show and I’m a very private person, so at first I thought, “Oh, there’s no way that I’m going to put my life out here.” But I also saw it as an opportunity to show what I feel like is a very unique part of our program, which is the family aspect that just the hard work, the grit and determination that these kids have, I just feel like it’s unlike any other. So I definitely did not want to pass up the opportunity. And it took us a while to work all the details and stuff out, but they came in and filmed and we just thought that we were filming a small little documentary about cheerleading that the people in the cheer community would be interested in watching. We obviously had no idea that anyone beyond cheerleading would be interested in it just because people don’t really think of cheerleading as more than just pom poms a lot, so they don’t really understand it. I didn’t think that they would even have the interest to watch it, but I knew how important it would be to the cheer community because I knew that they would then see the hard work and stuff that we put in. So yeah, we were super surprised. We had no idea. I mean, honestly, we had zero idea of what was to come.
Because of the show a number of your students have become online celebrities in many ways. I think Jerry and somebody else, I don’t know if they went to the Oscars or they went to I think they went to like one of the parties on the side or something.
Yes. Andy was there. Andy went with Jerry. Yeah, Jerry, and he did the Oscars for the Ellen show. He was the correspondent and then they went to the Vanity Fair party afterwards, which was huge, so yes.
Which they should hold that over anyone they ever meet in the industry because literally 90% of Hollywood does not get to go to that party. [Laughs.] I know that they are good people and good students and that’s one of the reasons you put them on your team. But how hard has it been in the context of the season and all this happening to sort of manage egos to make sure that none of them distract from the team’s goals?
Well, when we were here before the pandemic, I didn’t see the kids change in any way as far as egos go. And I think everyone on the team that maybe wasn’t spotlighted or just new to the team this year, everyone was just so happy that the world was getting to see what we truly do and the hard work that we put into it. I didn’t see any jealousy. And then the kids that we’re in the spotlight like you said, they’re just great kids. And I think a lot of them have come from hard times, so they just felt blessed to have some opportunities come their way that could possibly even be a career or something that they never thought might be a possibility for them. So more so than anything, I think it’s just boosted their confidence in themselves about their future and how successful they can be. Someone like Lexi that’s a high school dropout, a lot of times you’re a dropout, not because you’re not smart enough, you just don’t believe in yourself. And I think [of] the confidence that it’s just given her.
When you finally saw the finished series, was there one moment that really moved you the most or surprised you when you saw it?
Well, I mean, I knew these kids’ stories, but I didn’t know some of the details that were told on the show obviously. So I think the whole thing was just emotional for me just because I’m so invested in these kids, I love them like my own and just to see some of that hurt coming out, I cried. I’ve watched it multiple times and I cry every time. I think just hearing the details of some of their stories, I wasn’t expecting it to get that heavy and for it to be that emotional. And I thought the producers did a great job of pulling out the emotions. Even after we won, just the feelings it brought back. It was great.
During the press tour, there were a lot of questions about whether you were shooting a second season and the responses were rather vague. Now that the season ended and Daytona was canceled, can you say whether it was in the works?
Yeah, I don’t really know what’s going to happen. That’s definitely not something that we know is going to, we don’t know about that at the moment actually. Obviously, we didn’t go to Daytona so there is no Daytona this year. I do know that.
My last question for you is, as such a successful coach, is there one piece of advice or one thing you sort of keep with you that you would tell any young coach, in any sport, just starting out?
I think, you just have to be resilient. I mean, you can’t give up because it is hard when you first start. Whether you start with a program that has had zero success and you have to build it from the ground up or even if you come into a program that is successful already, being that new person is going to be hard. So you just have to stay resilient and you just have to stay determined and keep working towards your goals because you can make it happen. You just have to make it through those tough times.
“Cheer” is available on Netflix.