By Kyle LoJacono
Kaylan Figueroa could not have been more nervous as she read the list of girls who made the Florida Atlantic University (FAU) cheerleading team.
The recent Sunlake High graduate had put in years of training with the hopes of becoming a college cheerleader. With every name she read, she became more and more worried that she hadn’t made the cut.
Figueroa’s apprehension turned to joy when she saw her name among the 45 selected to the Owls 2011-12 squad.
“I was so excited,” Figueroa said. “I’ve done a lot of cheering, but college cheering is the top level. I wasn’t sure if I was going to make the team. There were 80 girls who tried out and to be picked among them, I don’t have the words.”
Figueroa started cheering at age 8. It was her mother, Michelle Sussman, who first signed her up for it with the Tampa Bay Youth Football League with the Westchase Colts cheerleading squad.
“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to do it,” Figueroa said. “I didn’t think I’d be good, but the first day I went out to practice I fell in love with it. I love the competition. You only have two and a half minutes to do your routine with your team, so you have to be perfect.”
Figueroa spent the last four years on the Seahawks varsity squad and was named to the All-Sunshine Athletic Conference first team as a senior for her work as a base.
“A base is the person who holds up the other girls,” Figueroa said. “People are surprised when I tell them I’m a base because I’m only 5-foot-3 and 115 pounds.”
Her strength did not come easily. Figueroa said she puts in about two hours a day in the gym with weights along with 2.5 hours of practice in the gym four days a week.
Mix in jogging, running stadium steps and cheering at Friday night Sunlake football games and she easily spends 25 hours a week perfecting her cheerleading skills.
“She was also trying to get better,” said former Sunlake and current Hudson High cheerleading coach Pennye Garcia. “She was always putting in extra work to be stronger and be a better tumbler. She was also a great leader. It isn’t common to have someone with the ability to lead a group like you see in her.”
Figueroa enjoyed cheering at the Seahawks football games as much as the competitions, especially as a senior when the team set a program record by winning eight games.
“Everyone looked forward to Friday nights this year,” Figueroa said. “The first years there wasn’t as much school spirit, but as the team got better and better more people came to the games. This year there was a lot of energy for home games.”
Figueroa said her favorite memory was cheering at the home football game against Land O’ Lakes this year. Sunlake was leading the contest 21-17 deep into the fourth quarter and a win would have not only guaranteed the Seahawks their first playoff berth, but knocked the Gators out of the playoffs.
Sunlake ended up on the wrong side of a 29-27 score, but Figueroa can still feel the electricity in the stadium that night.
“It was a great game and we were so close to beating Land O’ Lakes,” Figueroa said. “It is something I’ll always remember.”
Figueroa’s talents do not end on the field and in the gym. She also graduated with a 3.5 weighted grade point average while taking all honors-level courses as a senior. She plans to study education with the goal of becoming a science teacher.
“It’s always been a dream to eventually coach high school or college cheerleading,” Figueroa said. “Being a teacher would help me do that.”
Figueroa already has experience coaching as she spent the summer before her senior year volunteering at the Bob Seirra YMCA in Northdale.
“I got to coach girls 6-13 years old,” Figueroa said. “I knew I wanted to be a coach before, but doing that made me sure it’s what I want.”
Figueroa will soon leave for FAU, but she will always remember her time at Sunlake.
“I got to cheer here for four years and I wouldn’t want to have gone to any other school,” Figueroa said. “I made great friends and we became a family.”
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