7 a.m. — time to wake up. Another long day awaits Abigail Kuenster. She stares at the ceiling for a few minutes, running through her day and building the wherewithal to take it on.
Class until 10, workout, back to class, lunch, study table, practice, team dinner, Com Day meeting, homework.
It’s going to be a long day for Abigail, but not an atypical one. She rises from bed and her ankle cries out in pain. She looks at a nearby bottle of ibuprofen.
Of course, who could forget that physical therapy appointment.
We often hear about the lives of student athletes, usually the star quarterback or point guard. All too often, however, one group is overlooked. The athletes who can often be seen with taped wrists and ankles, who build the strength to throw a human 10 feet in the air and perform dangerous stunts in front of tens of thousands of fans: the cheerleaders.
Abigail Kuenster is a cheerleader.
She is also much more. A junior at Purdue studying public relations and strategic communication, Abigail is also the director of communication for Purdue Student Government, a member of the Delta Gamma sorority, the Com Day Chair for the Purdue chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA): directing and planning the chapter’s annual conference held on Purdue’s campus and the PR director for Boiler Communication, Purdue’s student-run public relations firm. On top of all that, though, she is a national champion.
Behind the cheery smiles and exciting stunts we all see at football games, there are countless hours of late nights, early mornings, grueling workouts and hundreds of falls. With the drilling of floor and aerial stunts, a cheerleading practice is quite taxing on the body. Fall semesters are notoriously hard on the cheer squad. The average week contains at least three workouts, two three hour practices and a third hour and half practice, a football game and a volleyball game. Come November, you can throw men’s and women’s basketball games into the mix as well. It can be difficult to find time to rest—physically and mentally.
It’s a heavy load. A load that can certainly take its toll.
“It’s a full plate, but I feel worthless if I’m not doing anything. I’ve always felt a need to do more,” said Abigail.
Sitting down with Abigail, it’s clear she brings this ambition everywhere in her life. But with great ambition, comes great risk. A lesson learned during Abigail’s freshman year at Purdue.
She was a still teenager, a girl from Wisconsin who had taken up cheerleading four years earlier after a life of gymnastics on a whim when a friend convinced her to try out.
“I immediately fell in love with cheer when I tried out in high school, and as soon as I started, I began to dream of continuing on to win the national championship when I got to college.”
So Abigail wanted to compete in college. She decided against her home school of UW Madison, as their cheer squad didn’t compete, and landed at Purdue after experiencing the talent of the cheer team and the academic culture. During her first year as a Boilermaker, her wish to compete was granted. Abigail made the national team as a freshman, and was set to compete for the national title.
She felt that she was well on her way to do just that. Until three months before the competition. She fell. Hard.
“I broke my hand. That was it. I was out.”
The injury put her out for the year. The fracture required surgery and months of physical therapy. There was no possible way she would be able to practice or compete. After having an incredible opportunity ripped away so quickly, Abigail was devastated. She spent winter break at home in Wisconsin, rather than traveling to Orlando.
“I was heartbroken. I didn’t even end up going to nationals…To be given that chance. To do what I love and to represent my school, especially as a freshman, and have it all taken away. I just couldn’t do it.”
But as her aforementioned involvements can testify, Abigail Kuenster isn’t one to sit around and watch the world go by. She returned more motivated and driven than ever. Sophomore year is considered the “weed-out” year for many communications students at Purdue, as they are required to take and pass with a three rigorous courses with at least a “B” in order to be admitted to the Brian Lamb School of Communication. Abigail fed off the energy of her increasing course load. She became more involved in the PRSSA and her professional development. She fought harder than ever in the gym and at practice. She was determined to make up for her freshman year. This year was going to be the year.
She was placed on the national team again, and this time, she was ready. Winter break came, and the team travelled to Orlando. Abigail had watched from over 1,000 miles away last year as her team placed second in Division I Small Coed last year. It was time. Time for a second chance. Time to prove herself. She had 150 seconds to prove herself: to her team, her friends, her family, her school.
It seemed like it was over before it even began. Months of work have been leading up to this moment. Ice baths, physical therapy, sweat, pain, tears, falling again and again. And it was all for this.
It was time for the moment of truth.
The winner of the 2017 UCA & UDA College Cheerleading & Dance Team National Championship:
University of Memphis.
They had come in second place again. After the injury, the pain, the stress, the late nights—they had just missed it.
Never backing down, Abigail’s resolve strengthened even more. Now a junior, Abigail had made it into the School of Communication. She took on more responsibility in the PRSSA, taking a seat on the exec board as the Director of Com Day. She joined Purdue’s student-run PR firm to gain real world experience. As passionate as she is for cheerleading, her love for her career field has only deepened in her time at Purdue as well.
“When I think of myself in five years, I see myself working at a PR agency, continuing to build myself as a professional. I love the diversity of experiences and opportunities to grow from an agency. Every new client presents a new opportunity to learn something.”
And yet, as she fell harder for the communications field, she never let go of her current mission: to win a national championship. She pushed herself harder than she’s ever pushed before: even nursing an ankle strain during our interview. It doesn’t matter to Abigail. It will heal, and she’ll continue to grow stronger.
Third time has to be the charm. Winter break is back again, and with it, another trip to Orlando. It’s a scene that’s all too familiar to Abigail and her team. Familiar faces from other universities milling around in the crowd. There’s a certain energy that is unique to the national competition. Everyone has a glimmer in their eye, they’re all here for the same thing: to win.
Purdue is up again. The team takes their positions. Abigail feels each beat of her heart reverberate throughout her body. Her chest is tight, she focuses. Flashes of last year’s second place performance, her broken hand, her high school self dreaming of standing exactly where she is standing. This. Is. It.
You’ve done this routine at least a hundred times. Just like practice.
Once again, it all comes down to 150 seconds. The fastest 150 seconds of her life are gone before she can even process them. The stunts, just a blur in time. Afterwards they had nothing to do but to wait for the results.
The winner of the 2018 UCA & UDA College Cheerleading & Dance Team National Championship:
They did it. She did it.
“It just didn’t seem real. I never actually believed I would actually be standing there. That it would happen… I knew everything I had done was worth it: the injuries, the pain, the ice baths, the emotional distress. It was all worth it.”
This was not only a first for Abigail, it was a first for the school. Purdue had never won a National Championship in cheer. The team exploded at the announcement. They had made history. Many teammates hardly noticed the massive trophy being passed around, as they were caught in the unity of the team: hugging and crying tears of marvelous joy together. Finally, they were champions.
Abigail has the gold medal hanging in her room to remind her of what she accomplished. She looks at it whenever she feels overwhelmed with practice, school, career prospects, friends, family or anything else. Her medal is a constant reminder that some sacrifices are necessary but persistence pays off.
When she sees that medal, she knows she can accomplish anything. And I would have to agree with her.