With practice still a few minutes away, freshman Anton Rizzo and his stunt team are in a corner of the gymnastics gym, warming up for their stunt. Rizzo begins the count for the team, and in unison, they snap their fingers to the left, snap to the right and then get into a squatting ready position. Rizzo is base, and along with two women, he lifts the flyer into the air and helps her perform the stunt.
Rizzo said it’s been an adjustment for both him and the team to have a male member — the first in team history.
“As much as I feel like I fit in, I’m the only guy, so of course it is going to be different,” he said. “But I kind of expected this, so it’s not really a surprise to me.”
Rizzo got his start in cheerleading through tumbling, which he was placed in as a way to get healthy and grow stronger as a child.
“I was adopted, and the orphanage I was from was very malnourished, and once I came to America, my pediatrician said that I was going to be very uncoordinated, so my mom put me in gymnastics classes,” he said. “That kind of sparked my interest, like ‘Let me try cheer,’ and I did it and loved it.”
This year marks the first year Rizzo has ever been on an organized cheerleading team. In high school, he would do stunts with friends, but never joined a team.
Though Rizzo is the first and only guy on the team, he performs and practices just like any other member of the team. Freshman Lauren Rommens said she had never cheered with a male member before. But she said it is nice to have Rizzo on the team because he is very dedicated to the sport.
“He works on his tumbling passes, and he’ll stick with it, and he is always willing to help people,” she said. “It’s nice to see how committed he is, that it just wants to make you work harder and be better. He’s always helpful, and even if he’s in a bad mood, he just gives 100 percent effort, which is just awesome.”
The team has competed at nationals every year since 2014. Rizzo performs a full twist tumbling pass during competitions, something that he said is new for him this year. He also is a base, meaning he is positioned in the back of the stunt and is in charge of keeping count and spotting the flyer.
Senior Alex Sprague, vice president of the cheerleading team, has also never been on a cheerleading team with a male member. She said having Rizzo on the team provides a different outlook and a good balance.
“I think the male perspective is very different from the female perspective,” she said. “We beat ourselves up whenever anything happens or goes wrong, but he brings such a positive light to our team that it is kind of like eye–opening and inspiring. He would tumble and fall, but he would get right back up and does it again and keeps going until he gets it. … It’s so easy to just fall down and be like, ‘I can’t do it; it’s not going to happen,’ so just having him be there and to be that person to set that example has been really awesome for everyone.”
Trying out for the cheerleading team consists of sending in a video showcasing stunts, tumbling, jumping and dancing, plus a 20-second video introduction about oneself. Decisions are made July 1, and new team members then report to preseason in August. The team had to special–order a cheerleading uniform for Rizzo.
Not only was there an adjustment to including a man in their stunts, but it also took time to incorporate Rizzo into this team dynamic, which previously was defined by an all-women atmosphere, Rommens said.
“I feel like girls click together very well, and he was kind of left out in the beginning,” she said. “As the season has progressed, they have tried to make it a point to include him in everything because it is hard because he doesn’t have the same interests as we do, but it has been good.”
One obstacle to having more men join the team is that the few men who participate in cheerleading tend to go to Division I schools, Sprague said.
“I know that he is wishing that there was another boy, but I think he also fits well with some of the girls on the team really well,” she said.
Sprague said Rizzo adds a new level of difficulty to the team.
“I think it’s amazing what male cheerleaders can do compared to female cheerleaders,” she said. “They just have so much power that it was almost just shocking to just see him do things that we struggle with with ease.”
No matter what people say about him, Rizzo said he is doing what he loves and that that’s all he cares about.
“I wasn’t really afraid to try out because I learned in high school not to really be too judgmental anymore,” he said. “Like if people said something about me, I wouldn’t care. It’s my life, and I came in with an open mind.”