Louis Pinto loved parkour. An obstacle course-based training/sport/martial art that involves running, climbing, swinging, vaulting, jumping and rolling, it appeals to independent-minded people who may not be into traditional activities.
When Louis got to Staples High School, he thought about trying out for another sport that involved tumbling and leaping: cheerleading.
Friends told him he’d probably be mocked. He did not go out for the team.
The same thing happened the next year.
But as a junior, Louis changed his mind. “I really shouldn’t care what other people said,” he recalls. “I should do what makes me happy.”
The cheerleaders — or cheer team, as it’s also known — had a new coach last fall. Dayne Blackwood competes at the highest level, for the Inferno extreme team. An excellent role model, he encouraged Louis to try out.
Louis — and another junior boy, Odin Bartie — did. Both made the previously all-female squad.
At the first practice, junior girls welcomed them to the team. Underclassmen thought it was great to have guys too.
Louis worked hard. He was a good tumbler, but he learned a lot about form.
He’d never lifted weights. Now he was motivated to get stronger. Lifting a partner — and holding her high — is a lot tougher than it looks.
And cheerleading is a lot different than it used to be.
Though the squad cheers at football and basketball games, the real draw is competition. Cheerleaders perform routines to music, with stunts, jumps and tumbling. Points are awarded for difficulty and execution. The sport demands strength, agility, poise under pressure — and true teamwork.
“The first time we didn’t get any points deducted for a fall, we exploded with happiness,” Louis recalls. “It was an amazing feeling.”
Staples finished 2nd in the FCIAC co-ed meet. “We were disappointed, because of the deduction. But I felt so focused and connected with my teammates,” Louis says. “Our coaches went crazy, because our routines were so good.”
The Westporters placed 2nd in the state competition, and 3rd at the Team of the Year meet. That qualified them for the regional event in New Hampshire. However, because of date conflicts they did not compete.
Louis credits Dayne with pushing him hard — and encouraging him. Now, Louis says, “I do back flips like it’s second nature. I lift people like it’s nothing.”
He credits the entire cheer experience with improving his confidence and self-esteem. “When I started, I was shy. I didn’t want to open up to my teammates. I had pent-up energy, and was anxious.
“Now I’m a better version of me. I look at myself, and see the great qualities I have.”
His friends are supportive, and “totally into it.”
Louis does get the occasional questions about a guy cheerleader. And he does hear, “That’s so gay.”
But, he says, “I shrug it off. It’s my life. Their opinions don’t matter. The only thought that matters is what I think.”
He’s thinking about trying out for Xtreme Cheer, a premier program in Norwalk.
He looks forward to Staples tryouts in May. And he has a message for any boy who — like himself 2 years ago — wants to try out for cheer, but hesitates.
“The more guys, the better. We want to be a real co-ed team!”