Picking up a new sport is no easy feat. Beyond the physical challenge of it, each new sport has different routines, rituals and sets of skills that someone who hopes to be successful has to master.
Jaxson Noel signed with the University of Kentucky to be a cheerleader on Tuesday in the library at Scott County High School. Noel proved to be particularly adept at picking up a new sport, as he just started this one in 2017.
Two years later, Noel is not just participating in his new endeavor, he’s become a member of the strongest team in America. UK’s competitive cheer program has won 24 national championships, including the last four in a row.
How did this happen?
It began with a chance encounter. Noel forgot his jacket and sought shelter from a chilly November day.
“Me and my dad, we went to Rupp Arena and saw girls from my school go in that were cheerleaders,” Noel said. “So I was like, ‘let’s go watch them,’ so we went in to watch them and there were a bunch of guys there. I didn’t know that guys cheered, so I thought it was pretty cool.”
Shortly after seeing the competition, Noel went to an open gym to give cheer a try.
“It turned out to be a practice,” Noel said. “And the team, they had a guy who wasn’t showing up there and they had nationals the next week so they asked me to fill in for him. So then I had that week and I went to nationals and then I was kind of in the cheer world.”
Noel’s mother, Gina Hensley, said that it was shocking for her the first time she saw her son competing in cheer.
“I didn’t get to go to that first one because it was kind of a whirlwind,” Hensley said. “But the one in Indianapolis I got to go to and yeah, it blew me away. I didn’t know what he was going to be doing. I didn’t know the level of talent, either, especially with him being thrown into this. I thought, ‘well they’re not gonna be very good.’ And then we find out they’re a worlds team, they’re always amazing.”
Shortly after those first few competitions, Noel attended a UK cheer clinic. While he was there, he was offered an opportunity to try out for the Wildcats team.
Things were moving rapidly, but a detour was coming.
During training last October, Noel tore the ACL in his right knee. Hensley said that the injury almost put a stop to her son’s college cheer dreams.
“It was devastating,” she said. “I didn’t know how much he really loved the sport until that happened. He cried, we cried. He thought it was over.”
With the tryout coming up the first week of May and the rehabilitation time for ACL injuries requiring months, Noel had to move quickly. Following his knee surgery, he got right to work with physical therapy and was eventually able to get back to the mat in time for the UK tryout.
“That kid worked his butt off,” Hensley said. “You saw his trainers were here and they just loved him and they said to come three days a week. So his dad and I, that’s a huge sacrifice at $60 a session, but it was three days a week in PT and every time they would test him, he was ahead of the curve.”
Noel was eventually cleared to return in a limited fashion and was able to attend the three-day tryout. He made the team and will take to the mat with the rest of the Wildcats cheerleaders once enrolled.
“During the competitions you could just see the smiles,” Shaun Noel, Jaxson’s father, said. “And when he tore his ACL it was just like all of that was wiped out of him, but with the help of a great surgeon and (physical therapy) and his determination to get back to cheer, it’s slowly come back.”
The UK cheer program will be seeking a nation-leading 25th national championship this season.
Its newest recruit still has a lot to learn. But he’s on his way.