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Whittington fights through adversity at national cheer event

NATCHEZ — The trip may have been a dream come true, but the experience was something out of a nightmare at first.

Cathedral High School freshman Anna Peyton Whittington got the chance to live the dream of every competitive cheerleader: Making an appearance on a national stage. Whittington competed for Team Onyx in the United States All Star Federation’s Cheerleading and Dance Worlds competition April 27-28 at Disney World.

Cathedral High School freshman Anna Peyton Whittington poses as she performs a scorpion exercise during cheerleading practice Tuesday afternoon at the school. Whittington recently competed in the United State All Star Federation’s Cheerleading and Dance Worlds competition April 27-28 at Disney World. (Ben Hillyer \ The Natchez Democrat)
Cathedral High School freshman Anna Peyton Whittington poses as she performs a scorpion exercise during cheerleading practice Tuesday afternoon at the school. Whittington recently competed in the United State All Star Federation’s Cheerleading and Dance Worlds competition April 27-28 at Disney World. (Ben Hillyer \ The Natchez Democrat)

But a pair of trials surrounded her squad leading up to their routine, and Whittington said it took every ounce of determination by the girls to overcome those trials.

Whittington’s teammate, Amanda Ruiz, broke her rib after she came down from a switch kick double, forcing the team to go back to the drawing board.

“I was freaking out,” Whittington said. “She was the main stunt girl, and I had to slide into the stunt.”

Whittington’s teammates calmed her down, but yet another injury would push them all to their limits. After redoing the routine, the group went through warmups again when team member Katie Paulk rolled her ankle and tore her ligaments. Once again, Whittington’s team had to redo their plans.

“By then, we were all crying and wanted to give up,” Whittington said. “But the coaches kept motivating us and telling us we couldn’t give up.”

By the time they were due to start their routine, the coaches made sure to huddle everyone into a circle and have them hold hands.

“They said, ‘If you haven’t learned anything today, learn that you don’t give up,’ and we didn’t,” Whittington said.

Out of the 39 teams in their division, Whittington’s team placed 11th, one shy of making the finals.

“It felt amazing (to finish so high),” she said.

Having the chance to compete on a national stage — and visit Disney World — was a culmination of a lot of hard work, Whittington’s mother, Tammy Whittington, said. Anna Peyton travels to Baton Rouge to work out twice a week, going through stunt, flexibility and tumble classes, Tammy said.

“I think she’s been given a gift,” Tammy said. “She’s very athletic, I think sometimes children aren’t given a chance to use their gifts. I’m trying to make sure she is given that chance.”

Anna Peyton said it’s a lot of hard work, but she enjoys the fruits of her labor.

“Being able to compete on the floor and being under the bright lights (motivates me),” Anna Peyton said.

In order to get invited to the Cheerleading and Dance Worlds competition, Anna Peyton had to score high at numerous cheerleading competitions. Going to Orlando, Fla., to watch her daughter compete was an eye-opening experience, she said. Most of Team Onyx was made of up college athletes, whereas Anna Peyton is only 15. In addition to the 39 teams in her district, there were 24 international teams from South Korea, Jamaica, Australia, Argentina and Canada.

“It was amazing to watch all of these athletes at this high of a level,” Tammy said. “I can’t even describe it. They were phenomenal. They train four to five times a day — they don’t take any time off.”

One of the biggest challenges for Anna Peyton is stretching, since she’s not naturally flexible, Tammy said. Anna Peyton said stretching is her least-favorite part about cheerleading.

“It’s pretty painful,” she said. “I don’t like stretching, but in the end it’s worth it.”

Anna Peyton received an email Tuesday morning that said she qualified for the Level 5 cheerleading world team, which would allow her the chance to qualify for next year’s Cheerleading and Dance Worlds competition. She is also the daughter of Steve Whittington.