Competition season is here. The choreography is set, the music is complete, and the full out routines are plentiful. This is the time of year that cheerleaders dream about, and work so hard to get to. When you ask a cheerleader why they love their sport, often times they will tell you that it’s all about the rush of the competition floor. They love the lights, the crowd, and the challenge of nailing that perfect routine in the moment when all of the pressure is on.
Tragedy Struck Woodstock High School
In the fiercely competitive state of Georgia, Woodstock High School is no stranger to the spotlight. Traditionally, the Wolverines have been a force to be reckoned with. This year was to be no different. WHS was poised for a phenomenal season with a team of talented, hard-working athletes ready to make a run for the top spot. With their first competition for the 2017 season rapidly approaching, all was going according to plan… until tragedy struck and changed everything.
On September 8th, Maddi Phillips, a member of the Woodstock varsity competitive team, tragically lost her life in a car accident. The news of the 16-year old’s passing sent shockwaves through the entire cheerleading community and rocked the team to the core. For coach Robyn “Bird” Kennedy, the moment she found out was one she’ll never forget:
I don’t think anyone can ever prepare you for a phone call like that. My heart immediately shattered. As coaches, we put our hearts and souls into our athletes. For some of us we spend more time with them than they do their own families, so learning of the passing of our sweet Maddi shattered everyone’s hearts.
Through the pain and horrific sadness, a tremendous outpouring of love and support arrived for the team when they needed it most. Text messages, phone calls, emails, and social media posts flooded in to show support for the Woodstock High School community, especially for the cheerleading team who had lost a sister. One particularly special moment was at a WHS football game, where everyone in attendance wore yellow, Maddi’s favorite color. The football team even joined in with the cheerleaders in releasing yellow balloons into the sky, accompanied by a moment of silence.
Deciding How to Move Forward
When the dust had settled and days had passed, the questions about the team’s next steps began to arise. Coach Kennedy had the unthinkably tough job of bringing the conversation to the table about what the team’s season would look like:
I honestly prayed about it. I spent the entire week asking myself, ‘what do we do?’ When questions filled my head, and when I began to ask others for advice, I knew I had to step back and pray that God would guide me in the right path. I woke up one morning and it was clear. [Co-coach] Helen and I brought the girls together on a Thursday afternoon after school in downtown Woodstock. I brought crafts, things for the girls to make like key chains and bracelets to remember their friend, and that’s where we started. I wanted the conversation to be in their hands. [We] didn’t want the decision to be ours. Half-way through crafting is when the decision was made by the girls that they wanted to continue. Not for themselves, not for their peers, nor parents, but for Maddi, and Maddi only.
In that moment, a new season of honor and tribute to their beloved lost teammate began. The process of finding a voice for their season was going to involve many changes, including figuring out what to do with Maddi’s spot in the routine. As a coach, it is a heavy responsibility and one that Coach Kennedy did not take lightly. Ultimately, she let the girls decide what they wanted to do.
The only request the girls had was to get a new routine. All of the girls concluded that they did not want to “fill in” her spot in the routine but would rather honor her spot in the old routine and move forward with a new one. So, that’s exactly what they did.
From there, the pieces began to fall into place to create the perfect tribute competition routine in Maddi’s honor. The Wolverines got the help of the talented Atlanta based choreographer Brett Lane. Coach Kennedy said he didn’t hesitate for a second when she reached out to him to come back and re-work the routine. They also received a new competition mix from Sunrise Music Productions that was created entirely as a customized tribute to the team and to Maddi. With those two major aspects of the process completed, the girls were able to find peace the process of finding their way to competition, while still honoring their teammate through it all.
The Woodstock Wolverines Prepare for Competition
As the Woodstock Wolverines head to competition this Saturday for the first time, it is a perfect reminder of the importance of community in our lives. Through the toughest of times, the best thing that we can do, as human beings, is to hold each other up in times of trouble. As they take the mat this weekend donning their navy bows with Maddi’s initials inside of a sunflower (her favorite) on them, they’ll be doing it for so much more than the thrill of competition. When asked what the team will be taking away from the experience, this season, and Maddi’s legacy, Kennedy made that clear:
I think Maddi has taught all of us a little something: to cherish, love, and support one another, to learn from the moments you have together, to laugh more, to hug one another in times of happiness and in times of sorrow, and to hold on to the memories from yesterday and pray for exciting new ones tomorrow. That’s how Maddi lived, and that’s how we will always remember her.
A special thank you to Tom Parrott for sharing this story with us. These girls’ resilience is admirable. Good luck this weekend, Wolverines!