Will Hunt: The Heart of Stingray All Stars Steel
As well-known and accomplished as Marietta, Georgia's Stingray All Stars Steel are, they had never won a title at the Cheerleading World Championship before this year. Having yet to win a competition this season, its Large Senior Coed squad didn't seem likely to end that streak, but in Orlando, Florida the team peaked at just the right moment to win its first World Championship title. Throughout the season the team drew inspiration from one of its members, Will Hunt, who received a heart transplant last fall. In the wake of the team's victory, one of its coaches, Louis Witsiepe, described Will as the "heart of the team." Given the opportunity to tell his side of the story, Will was quick to credit his coaches and teammates for being the ones with the most heart.
For Christmas in 2015, I asked my parents for just one thing: I wanted to try out for Stingrays Steel.I've always loved tumbling. Ever since I was little, I would do flips everywhere I went. But when I tried to join a gymnastics team, I was told I was too tall for the sport. I was devastated.
When I was 12, some friends of mine from middle school encouraged me to try out for their cheerleading team. The gym where they practiced was close to where I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, so I gave it a shot and made the Level 3 Junior team. From there, I took classes, worked out a lot, and progressed through the levels until I made the Level 5 team.
As much as I enjoyed it, I'd become obsessed with joining Steel. A couple of my friends were on the team, and I often watched YouTube videos of them. I desperately wanted to try out, but their gym was two hours away in Marietta, Georgia, so my parents weren't on board at first.
That's when I came up with the Christmas present idea. When my parents agreed to let me try out, I started training for it. I did CrossFit twice a week, and I worked out with my dad at home, doing countless box jumps and pushups. I practiced tumbling, built up my strength and stamina, and worked on skills I thought I'd need to be a part of the team.
At tryouts, I did many of the required Level 5 skills: a standing full, an Arabian through to double, a straight double, a toe touch standing full, and a jump to tuck. Even though it is not my strength, I also coed stunted during the team selection process.
I didn't think I was going to make the team, so when I did, it was a dream come true. I was 15 at the time, and it was the best thing that had ever happened to me. I was at home with my dad when I got the email telling me I'd made the made the team, and as we read it, both of us started crying.
I practiced with Steel all last summer and fell more in love with the team and the program than I ever thought possible. Even though the practices were challenging, I could feel myself getting stronger, but as the summer progressed, the practices began to feel harder and harder. I was often out of breath, which confusing to me because I thought I was in good shape. When I started having difficulty breathing just walking up steps or sitting in my room, I knew something was wrong.
Right before the season started, my parents took me to the Chattanooga Children's Hospital. The doctors thought I had pneumonia at first, but then, while X-raying my lungs, they saw that my heart was a lot bigger than it was supposed to be. When they determined that my heart was only working at 20 percent the level it should have been, they sent me to Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee, where the doctors told me I had cardiomyopathy, a condition that can lead to heart failure.
The doctors immediately put me on medications to slow my heartbeat down. When those medications didn't work, they told me I might have to get a heart transplant. I was in shock. I kept telling myself over and over again that "there is no way this could be happening to me."
But it did. I ended up having two open heart surgeries. During the first, the doctors installed a ventricular assist device (VAD), which is basically a machine that acts like a heart. Once the VAD was installed, I moved to the very top of the heart transplant donor list.
I was supposed to get released from the hospital on November 17, 2016. Instead, I got a call that day informing me that the transplant specialists had found a match for me.
The recovery from the heart transplant was very difficult. I had to stay in the hospital for a month after the surgery and do physical therapy every single day. What helped me get through that difficult time the most was my connection to Stingrays Steel. I had my uniform with me the entire time, and when I was finally allowed to get out of bed, I would put on the uniform top and walk around the hospital. Being a part of the team was giving me something to fight for.
During my absence, I missed my teammates every single day. I couldn't have gotten through that time without my teammates and coaches continued support. They texted me and checked up on me all the time. Some of them even made the eight-hour round trip to visit me. Others sent me notes that inspired me to keep fighting. Our team mom, Miss Gina, sent me care packages. To say that I love this team is a huge understatement. They are like family to me.
I was able to go to Dallas to support my team during NCA All-Star Nationals for a quick afternoon in between hospital checkups. Although I couldn't be there for long, seeing them was such great motivation to get even stronger. Once April rolled around, I was strong enough to be able to spend the weekend in Orlando with my team. Even though I could not compete side by side with my teammates at The Cheerleading Worlds, it was the most amazing experience of my life. I felt like I was out there on the mat with them. My teammates had worked so hard and grown so much this season so watching the team come together was nothing short of incredible.
It felt like a big family reunion. Everyone on the team had the same mindset. They realized they could win if they put their whole hearts and minds into it, and we came together at the perfect time. When it was announced that we were World Champions, my entire body went numb, I got chills all over, and I even started crying. I don't think I've ever experienced something like that before. Winning Worlds has been a dream of mine since fourth grade. Being able to share that moment with my 36 best friends was one of the best experiences of my life.
Steel celebrates a first place finish at The Cheerleading World Championship 2017.
After we won, one of our leaders, Coach Witsiepe, said I was the "heart of the team," but I prefer to think of this team as my heart. My teammates have the most compassion, the hardest work ethic, and the most grit of any people I know. We're all the bones and the brain and--yes--the heart of this team. We're all in this together.
Last week, Will had a biopsy that cleared him to start working out again. He hopes to return to the team next season.