When Gregory Shannon and his partner, Gregory Williams, decided to collaborate with Top Gun All Stars Cheer and Dance and open a brand-new gym in Peoria, they had a good idea of what they were getting into.
But they could never know the impression the athletes would leave on them.
Shannon and Williams had previously worked at a gym for Immortal Athletics, and Top Gun contacted them with the idea of branching out due to an interest in their style of coaching.
“We were like, ‘Of course, that’s a huge privilege.’” It’s a great honor. Top Gun has been around now…” Shannon thought for a moment. “…This will be 26 seasons. So, we are just blessed that they felt confident and believed in our coaching ability and our philosophy behind how we ran our program and run the gym.”
This will be their fifth year at the gym, and their third season with Top Gun All Stars. They work with two other owners who help manage the gym: Mak Holley and Debora Leyva.
“We just all seemed to really connect and click. So, it seemed like a smart choice and, honestly, it’s been a great decision,” Shannon said in his characteristic southern drawl.
Top Gun has five locations around the country. The first location was in Miami, Florida, according to its website. It has since expanded, with two more Florida locations in Orlando and Fort Myers and, most recently, Ohio and Arizona.
The competitive club cheer and dance teams compete in state and national tournaments each season, and Top Gun has competed in 26 seasons all together starting in 1994. The athletes are vying for a chance to participate in the Cheerleading Worlds competition hosted by USASF, or the United States All Star Federation for club cheer and dance teams.
USASF was founded in 2003 to help boost cheer and dance competition safety by implementing rules and regulations across the board, according to its website. The organization was founded in Tennessee, where Shannon and Williams grew up and met one another before making the move to Arizona.
Shannon has been coaching cheer since he was 16, and it’s clear competitive cheerleading is a passion the two both share. They received an offer to relocate to Arizona with a company called Twisted, which does dance choreography, and shortly after they arrived in Peoria.
Though Shannon enjoyed choreographing, it wasn’t long before he felt the call to coach again.
“We helped to grow that, and then eventually I decided that I really missed coaching a little too much,” Shannon said.
Shannon said the culture of cheer in the south is different than in Arizona. In the south, kids often start as young as 3 years old. There it’s considered a career and lifestyle as much as a sport.
Shannon hopes through this gym he can encourage younger athletes to take the sport seriously and go on to cheer in college and professionally.
“(I’m) hoping that they fall in love with this sport just as much as I did when I was younger,” Shannon said.
Above all else, though, Shannon recognizes these are kids who are working hard to achieve their goals and do better every day.
“I love being involved and being a role model. It’s not just about interacting with the kids, but being there for the kids. Our younger generation has a lot on their plate,” Shannon explained. “As long as we can say we are proud of the kids we are training and we’re helping young adults become accountable, stable, future members of society, I think we will be 100% content with our success, because honestly that is what is most important.”
His hope is to instill the drive and passion he had as a young cheerleader, and still holds as a coach today.
“That’s pretty much what drives me every single day. Knowing that I’m going to have some type of positive influence on these kids,” Shannon said. “It’s been a blessing.”
The teams work year round. Top Gun recently finished open tryouts in May for the 2019-20 season and is now in training mode, holding open gym sessions and tumbling classes to prep 150 athletes for the coming competitions. In August, teams will be solidified, start choreography training and prep for first competitions, normally starting in January and going through to April. Then the whole cycle will start again.
Top Gun has nine teams, and trains cheerleaders ranging from 3 years old to 30 years old. Though there are different skill levels, Shannon said they make a point of not denying anyone’s chance to cheer.
“We actually have teams for all levels and all ages and abilities. So no one gets turned away,” Shannon said. “Everyone makes the team. It is simply on what level or what age group you are placed in.”
The highest-tiered team is the Immortals, comprised of 24 athletes.
Alayja Reynolds, an 18-year-old cheer veteran, and has been cheering since she was 9 years old. She cheered with Top Gun All Stars for two seasons. Now attending Baylor University in Texas, she is a member of the acrobatics and tumbling team as an incoming freshman. She has already started classes and is training for the school year.
In her last year, the California native placed sixth at the world championships as part of Top Gun’s Immortals team in April.
“I almost didn’t think it was real, only because it’s hard to understand that you’re actually that good,” Reynolds said.
This is just one of many awards and accolades Top Gun teams have earned during their last three seasons.
Coed and all-girls teams vary from season to season, based on the kids who try out, but Shannon is adamant about including all kids, regardless of gender. In what is considered by some to be a female-dominated sport, Shannon himself struggled to be considered as much of a contender as his peers.
“I was only able to cheer for my high school simply because the all-star program in my area didn’t have coed teams,” he said. “If we have boys that come in or any males that do attend tryouts, we don’t hold any standards of, ‘Oh, this team has to be all-girl’ or ‘this team has to be co-ed.’ We really try and judge each year solely on the athletes that attend that tryout.”
The athletes are judged solely based on ability at tryouts, and most of that has to do with tumbling ability, or the ability to perform stunts. They also need to be effective in their position.
In addition to stunting and tumbling, Shannon said competitors must display ability in jumps, motion technique and performance — meaning stage presence. The teams don’t “cheer,” as in yell or chant, and all performances are done with music. This is a subtle difference to high school cheer teams.
Fourteen-year-old Kiana Breuer has been competing in cheer since she was just 4, and is now a back spot on the Recon team. The Arizona native is an incoming freshman at Mountain Ridge High School this fall, and hopes to cheer for her high school in addition to her time with Top Gun All Stars.
Only about 20 to 30 of the athletes with Top Gun also compete with their high school cheer teams, as Shannon said it’s hard to work with both schedules.
But for Breuer, the sacrifices are worth it to be a part of Top Gun.
“I just like performing and being part of a huge family and being able to trust and rely on all these people that you meet throughout the season,” she said. “No matter what went on at home or at school or with outside friends, you can always go in there and just know people are supporting you and always there for you.”
Like Shannon when he was a young cheerleader, Breuer hopes to become a coach one day and inspire a new generation to continue the sport. She has also met what she considers to be lifelong friends and family cheering with Top Gun. Many of her peers inspire her to push herself harder and higher than before.
“A lot of the coaches and older kids are great role models. It’s almost like they’re my uncles and aunts; my moms and dads and my sisters and brothers,” she said.
Cheerleading can be a big strain on the body, and athletes need to be in peak physical form for competition nearly year round. Breuer shared some of her routine for staying fit and performance ready.
“Cheerleading is bending your body in impressive ways just to entertain people, and sometimes that comes with sacrifices, like physically to your body, but it’s really important to take care of yourself and stretch and eat right and just stay healthy,” she said.
She also made it clear that she and her fellow competitors do not embody the hurtful stereotypes many assume about cheerleaders.
“I actually have a 4.0 GPA, and I really push in school, too. School is my top priority. It’s kind of hurtful when they say, ‘Oh, cheerleaders are dumb, cheerleaders are rude and they’re snobby.’ But that’s not the case at all.”
Reynolds and Breuer agree the culture at Top Gun is what led them to success in the program. The athletes are supportive of one another, and having a tight-knit group is essential to taking home the win at competitions. However, the real goal of the gym is to create long-lasting friendships that outlast the competitions. For Shannon, this is a key part of why he does what he does.
“They’re in their weddings. They attend graduations. They connect and they really make those lifelong friends that, 30 years down the road, they might not remember if they won every competition, but they remember the experiences that they had to go through to get to those points,” Shannon said.