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Battle for the Boots: Behind the scenes of the 2017 Colts Cheerleader auditions

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — A seven-day search to determine the 2017 Sweethearts of the Horseshoe started with 77 women who all share a common dream.

“I definitely just want to be that encouraging role model for those new girls coming in and seeing them come in and maybe not being so confident in their abilities or not so sure like I was coming in,” said Lexie, who’s auditioning for a second year on the squad. “I want to be able to reassure them and help them see that yes this is a long week but that you’re fully able to conquer it and make the squad.”

Donning the boots and dancing on the sidelines of Lucas Oil Stadium begins at the Colts complex. The day one audition brings all the hopefuls under the bright lights of the Colts practice facility for a choreographed routine and in front of the bright flashes of Colts organization cameras.

At the beginning of the day, all 77 women have an equal shot at being one of 26 to make the final roster.

Part 1

While those who have experience on the team may have more familiarity with the process and the organization’s expectations, everyone starts on a level playing field. It’s narrowed down to the 49 finalists who will endure the week-long audition which culminates with a showcase and the announcement of the squad.

"Since there's no guarantee that all the vets will return and the rookies that were on the squad last year will be on the squad again, I think it's the same amount of nerves and everything," Alexis said as she auditioned for a second season with the squad.

Alexis is one of 20 hoping to return from last year’s roster. Only six cheer veterans are retiring from the 2016 squad, making the field all the more competitive, especially compared to last year, when 13 women hung up their boots and gave more than a dozen rookies the opportunity of a lifetime.

"Even with that being said, even though there's less 'spots' that doesn't mean that we're all guaranteed to get it back,” Lexie said. “Yes, there are less people retiring but we are still here all working just as hard as if we haven't made the squad so there are a lot more faces for girls to recognize and say, ok that girl is a veteran, but we also know how hard we need to work to stay on the squad."

Those Colts cheer veterans aren’t the only familiar faces among them. Several candidates who made last year’s final are back, hoping this is the year they are named a Colts cheerleader.

"After last year's showcase, I emailed (Colts cheer manager) Kelly and asked her for some feedback and the biggest that she told me was that I needed to stand out more,” Anne said. “So that is why I put myself out there and tried so many new things. Definitely life is short so why not just go for it. There's nothing to lose except for gaining a new experience."

Anne attributes that perspective not only to her own experiences since last year’s audition, but also to overcoming obstacles within her family.

“My brother was diagnosed with cancer in March of last year and even before that my sister is a childhood cancer survivor. That is my ‘why’ in why I want to be part of Colts cheerleader community and being able to teach others about health and wellness and motivate them and be an inspiration."

Cassidy joined Anne in last year’s finals and also shares a similar motivation to encourage her to give making the squad a second shot.

“I would have to say my dad was and is my motivation to keep going,” Cassidy said. “He passed last year actually around this time during tryouts. It was a tough time. I was here though with the girls and the organization everyone was great and really welcoming. I hear his voice all the time, saying ‘Cassidy just go for it, follow your dreams, do what you love.’”

Other candidates have NFL experience, but not with the Colts. Kate and Danielle cheered for the Rams before the organization traded St. Louis for Los Angeles.  They’re both now hoping for a second chance on the sidelines, this time for the horseshoes instead of the horns.

“It's learning a whole new organization,” Kate said.  “It's learning the gears and the little things that make the Colts move and what makes the Colts the Colts, so learning that and being thankful for the opportunity even to be in the finals because even though you have NFL experience, it doesn't guarantee you a spot in finals it doesn't guarantee you a spot on the team so wanting it a lot but knowing you have to look really hard to get it."

Once it’s narrowed down to 49 finalists, the next five days of scored elements begins with likely the most daunting task – the fitness test.

"This fitness test will get me every time,” Lexie said. “I don't know what it is about the fitness test because I prepare and I work out all the time to get ready for it but as soon as those beeps come on the stereo all of a sudden my legs turn into jelly and I can't feel my hands and I don't know why.”

“I think the big component that's different with the Colts is the fitness test,” Kate added. “Knowing multiple routines and getting scored on multiple pieces of dance material, all those components really make this an elite squad and make the audition process different."

This grueling week features fiercely competitive finalists with experience across the NFL but those auditioning for the first time also bring their share of football experience.

“When I got to Notre Dame and going to football games in that stadium is amazing,” rookie hopeful Rose said. “No matter the outcome of the game, that community and being here in Indianapolis and wanting to have that community and representing the Colts, it's the same thing. And I think having that moment at Notre Dame when I could say this is awesome and I want to be a part of this, is something that inspires me and excites me about wanting to try out for Colts cheer."

Like Rose, Rachel is hoping to make the squad for her rookie season and shares her motivation to represent the horseshoe.

“I miss being a part of an organization that matters and that's very important in giving of myself to an organization in hopes of making it better and having a sisterhood around me, to motivate me and being around strong women that want to make me better and improve myself and grow and everything about it is Indianapolis and I want to be a Colts cheerleader,” Rachel said.

As the women continue to compete throughout the week for those coveted 26 roster spots, they’re juggling full time careers in addition to pursuing their passion for dance and for representing the Colts organization.

“I think Colts Cheerleading is the quintessence of all the things that I love combined,” Rachel explained before beginning her shift at Riley. “Here in the operating room, I work behind the scenes and I love being behind the scenes and I love being here for those children.”

Part 2

For Rachel, audition week means scrubbing in for surgery at 7 a.m., then by afternoon each day, slipping on spandex and jazz shoes for dance technique judging, a bikini for a photo shoot at the complex and buttoning up in a business suit for an interview in front of Colts front office personnel, an opportunity for each finalist to showcase both their personalities and their professions.

“Hi, I’m Rachel, and I'm a pediatric nurse at Riley Hospital in the operating room,” Rachel said, introducing herself to the panel. “Earlier this year, I become the assistant supervisor for plastic and maxillofacial surgery so essentially this means an ordinary day at my job is anything but ordinary.”

Those days at Riley often start before the sun comes up. Rachel is one of the first in the operating room, laying out the necessary tools and equipment, running through a thorough checklist to ensure everything is in place before the surgeons arrive.

"Right now, we are going to do ear tubes before this case because a lot of times it's easier for a child to have back-to-back procedures all at once that way they don't have to go under more than once or come back more than one time. So we're going to do ear tubes and then a cleft palate repair,” she explained.

Rachel studied nursing at Ball State and was president of the dance marathon fundraiser for Riley her senior year.  While she always knew she wanted her pursue a career at the hospital, Rachel’s passion for plastic surgery grew after working as a registered nurse then taking on her current assistant coordinator role.

"I'm biased but I think plastics is the best because it allows you to help a child feel as wonderfully about their outward appearance as you see them for who they really are when they walk in that door. And it's immediately gratifying. I think confidence is an immeasurable quality, and a lot of these kids come here feeling like they're different from their peers and really lacking in that confidence and in that love of themselves.”

Rachel’s duties often entail assisting intense surgeries following tragic experiences for children, like car accidents and fires.

“I think that the burns really affect me quite a bit just because it could happen to anyone. I think about how many times in your life you were at a bonfire, you were making a s’more or any moment where fire can come at you. When the world looks at you, they immediately see you in a second and take you in and asses you for who you are and in their case they really become their situation and it takes a lot of work and a lot of time with them to help them realize they are more than that moment.”

The most trying days in the operating room and often provide Rachel the greatest perspective.

“I think my favorite thing about pediatrics is how resilient kids are. They genuinely want to get better. They will do anything to just get back on their feet and get out there, play and go back to their real life. It's inspiring me and they motivate me”

While Rachel’s career in the medical field involves correcting and repairing conditions, Cassidy is working to find ways to prevent them.

“I’m currently employed at Eli Lilly and Company as an animal lab technician hoping to do my own research someday,” Cassidy said as she introduced herself to the panel. “When I'm not in the lab, I am the volleyball coach at Arsenal Tech High School and Starlings Volleyball Club."

Cassidy’s love of animals led to an internship working at the Indianapolis Zoo during college.

She was a member of the Golduster Dance Team while studying animal sciences and was ultimately drawn to research in hopes of combining her love of animals with a desire to prevent those issues that have affected her family.

“Being in research, you're not only helping the animals, you're helping people too, because that's how we get our medicine, Especially being around cancer research that's a big part for me and big thing to my family,” Cassidy explained. “That drives me every day and I can't wait to keep growing."

Problem solving and planning for the future are what drew rose to Indianapolis after graduating from Notre Dame.

“I am a structural engineer in the transportation department. And when you add transportation and structures, for the most part you get bridges and so I do a lot of bridge design,” Rose explained.

“I loved civil engineering because the concept of building something tangible and just being able to impact the community and building something like bridges or helping traffic get from point a to point b that just seemed to be the perfect fit. But it all started from, ‘Hey, I like math and I like science.’”

While pursuing her engineering degree, Rose was able to still pursue her passion for dance on the Notre Dame Pom Squad and thrives in finding a balance in her demanding dynamic of dance and design.

“I love the fact that I get to do lots of things. I consider myself to be versatile so being a dancer and then doing engineering there's a lot of similarities even though people don't necessarily see it. So having those a-ha moments with the choreography, you're struggling, maybe you take a break for an hour or you sleep on it and you wake up the next day, you go through it and it makes so much sense. And then being able to perform it and do what you know it's the same thing in engineering.”

Rose grew up in New York but grew to love Indiana during her time in South Bend, and is invested personally and professionally in the community.

“One of the things I'm really proud of is a new construction project in Hamilton County. I’ve gotten to work on some new things with that and I really look forward to seeing that project all the way out and eventually years down the road when it's built, I can drive over that bridge and say hey, I helped design that."

Rose hopes that landing a spot on the squad would help provide her a platform to inspire young girls to chase their dreams, no matter the challenges.

“I think that it's important to be proud of the things that you're interested in as well as maybe the career you're choosing,” Rose said. “And I've always said that if you want something bad enough, then you'll find a way to make it work. And dance has always been a passion of mine but I love engineering.”

As they endure the week together, the finalists finding encouragement within each other, not only in their dreams of dancing for an NFL franchise but also to continue to dispel stereotypes that surround science and math driven careers.

“It's inspiring to me to see other women out here going for what they love and pursuing their passions no matter how hard it may be, engineering, sciences most people think that those are careers for men and they're not,” Cassidy said. “Women do it and they're really good at it so just being around other women who have that mindset is great and makes me want to do better."

A week of being scored on dance ability, professionalism, poise and even the finalists’ football knowledge tested with a scored exam, it all culminates with a live showcase and the announcement of the squad.

Part 3

“I think I'm kind of emotional this year because the talent pool is so strong and there are so many women on the finalist panel that do deserve a spot on the squad and we do only have room for 26," Colts cheerleader manager Kelly Tilley explained.

The judging panel which includes Colts players T.J. Green and Matthias Farley, as well as Indianapolis 500 winner Alexander Rossi, ultimately determines who will make it from the stage at Hilbert Circle Theatre to the field at Lucas Oil Stadium.

The two-hour production includes a group performance with all 49 finalists.

They’re then broken up into trios for one of three choreographed routines, a chance for the judges to see how each candidate performs in a small group, similar to what you’d see on the sidelines on game day.

A dance solo and an onstage interview provide opportunities for each finalist to shine.

"We do ten games a season, but we do hundreds of appearances and we have the opportunity to do military visits and do big performances so we want to have really well rounded women on our team and so it's important that we not only showcase the dance but we showcase interview and talents,” Tilley explained.

"The cheerleading squad really is the face of the Colts organization in a lot of ways,” IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe said. “As someone that's in a sport where I represent brands and I represent my team and my sport and have to be a spokesperson I kind of get what that job is all about. It is a tremendous responsibility but it's a huge honor if you're chosen to be on the team.”

Hinchcliffe is no stranger to performing under pressure – both on the track and on the stage. He’s emceeing the showcase after finishing runner-up last year on “Dancing with the Stars.”

"My experience on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ makes me understand and appreciate how terrifying it is to be on stage in front of a live audience. Now the girls going on there tonight probably have a lot more experience than I do, so they'll probably deal with it better."

With the scores being tabulated behind the scenes, host Hinch brought some humor to the stage, testing his twinkle toes alongside several of the judges for a dance battle.

That provided some comedic relief for the audience, as nerves build backstage where the finalists await the results.

“It is going to be hard to say goodbye to the women who aren't going to make the team and I do hope that we have conversations the following week and I hope that they try it again because there was so much talent this year,” Tilley said.

"Oh my gosh, it is never ending just waiting for her to come back and tell you who's on the team and see who all is on it I think that's another big part too not only do you want to be on the squad but you want to see who your teammates are too so literally those 20 minutes feel like an eternity,” Lexie explained backstage.

Emotion ranging from elation to disappointment with celebration for some put on hold to console others.

A dream of dancing in the NFL would not be achieved this season for finalists Cassidy, Kate, Danielle and Anne, each is determined rather than defeated.

"Just remembering how it felt to be out here and giving it my all and just knowing that with everything I do that's how it should feel,” Cassidy said after the squad  was named.

"This week has been absolutely incredible,” Kate said. “I feel like I've grown so much as a person, as an individual not only learning from Kelly the director about this process but also about my ability to learn four routines in a really short amount of time and perfect them and just the friendships that I'll have forever."

"You might see me back next year,” Danielle said with a smile. “It's too early to tell of course you never know what a year could bring but I definitely really have enjoyed this experience."

“I'm excited to see what Kelly has to say about what I should improve on for next year and I know that I did better than I did last year so I grew and can't be disappointed with that,” Anne said. "It's a dream, so can't give up."

A dream realized for eight Colts Cheer rookies, including Rose and Rachel and a dream reclaimed for Alexis and Lexie who will return for a second season.

“Vets welcome home, rookies welcome to the NFL,” Tilley exclaimed as the new squad took the stage.

"Hearing them say welcome to the NFL is a feeling like no other,” Alexis said. “I know that all the ladies joining the team today are just so excited to be part of this team and part of this organization."

“What an incredible experience to get to represent the greatest team in the NFL like I am so thrilled to be back,” Lexie added.

“I’m so ecstatic,” Rose said after dancing on stage with her new teammates. “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. And you go back in this little room and the boots there for me to wear, oh my gosh it was great."

“Just moving them around getting the feel of them swinging the tassels,” Rachel said as she slipped on her boots for the first time. “No pair of shoes I've ever loved more this is my favorite pair in the whole closet.”

"Words don't describe this feeling. I'm on cloud nine. I'm elated. I can't even wait to begin the 2017 season.”

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