James Thomas Is Living The Dream
By Ashlee Buhler
James Thomas has come a long way since the days when he would throw back handsprings on his mattress at home or flip across the basketball court donning his school’s mascot costume. He always knew he loved to tumble, he knew he loved to perform, and he knew he wanted to be a cheerleader – a really, really good one. The journey hasn’t always been straightforward or easy, yet he’s managed to exceed his own expectations while making his dreams come true.
After rising to fame as one of the athletes featured on the Netflix docuseries Cheer, Thomas has become a fan favorite in the cheer community. Not only has he won two NCA College Championship rings with Navarro College, including the Grand National title in 2022 with the highest score in NCA history, but he’s helping to reshape the future of cheerleading as a member of the House of Cheer – the first and only touring company of professional cheerleaders who will travel the country this summer as part of the Level Up Tour.
These days when he’s not cheering on the sidelines at Texas Tech (where he’s set to graduate with a degree in Creative Media Industries in the spring 2024), Thomas invests a lot of time into his hobbies, which he hopes could turn into a career someday. He enjoys videography and photography, including taking pictures of his team at games when he’s not scheduled to cheer. (Fun fact: James took the beautiful photo of Maddy Brum that landed on the cover of Volume 1 2023 of Inside Cheer.) He also enjoys choreographing dance routines and recently celebrated the one year anniversary of his own business – James X Choreography. He’s a jack of all trades if you will, and he’s only just getting started.
The last three years have been an absolute whirlwind, but he’s more confident now with who he is and where he’s at than ever before. With one more year of collegiate cheer to go and a future full of opportunities, James Thomas can’t help but feel he’s exactly where he’s meant to be.
How excited are you for the opportunity to go on tour again?
Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it since the day we left tour last year! Just kind of hoping and praying that it would happen again because it was such a different experience. It was what I wanted cheerleading to be my entire life; all about the performance aspect of it and not so much competing against one another. I think that’s what I’m most excited for! They are creating the first athlete platform of branded cheerleaders under an umbrella… I’m like an actual branded cheerleader and that’s really cool to say!
The tour has this theme of “leveling up” and going beyond cheerleading. How will this opportunity allow you to level up?
Cheerleading is all competition based and you train to beat certain people every single year. Now we’re bringing something into the sport where you don’t have to compete against each other, you can actually try out for this and just do cheerleading to have fun and do it because you love it. That’s where the leveling up part comes into play, because now you’re not just an athlete who competes, you’re becoming a performer and becoming a new definition of a cheerleader.
A lot of the cast members are people you’ve become great friends with over the years and have made history with. You all have really helped grow interest in the sport! What is it like being a part of that group?
It’s actually really crazy because when I started cheerleading I always had a big motive and plan of being the best cheerleader but I didn’t know how that was going to happen, I just knew I needed to get better everyday. When I got to college I thought that was the end to it, but I feel like the cast and the group that I get to work with every day saw past that limit! They saw there was more than just college and All Star cheerleading and kept posting and showing off their skills even though they had no idea (House of Cheer) was a thing coming in the future. We push our skills beyond the limit and we showcase more than just what cheer is. We show our performance side, our dance side, our silly sides, our professional sides, how we speak to people … We bring all these leadership skills and are like, ‘Ok you are more than just a normal cheerleader.’ We are a part of a small group of people who broke the norm. We want it to be the norm for future kids to know that it’s not always about competition. You can cheer and have fun and share your passion with kids younger than you, so hopefully one day they are in your shoes, because I didn’t have that! Yes I had All Star “Cheerlebrities,” but I will now be someone that kids look up to when they want to perform and become this type of cheerleader. It feels good to be one of the firsts to showcase this!
When you think about the younger version of yourself, did you ever imagine you’d be doing the things you are doing today?
Honestly, no. I think every year I grew and got better, and I realized I was better, but I always told myself that somebody was better than me. I started at Eastern Michigan University and even though I was one of the better athletes on the team, I just always knew I wanted to be better. Every little gut feeling that I got, I just went with it. When I got to Navarro I was like, ‘Oh gosh, there are a lot of people that are better than me!’
How old were you when you started cheer?
Actually, it’s so funny because I started really late. I was 15 years old and in the ninth grade!
What was it about cheer that piqued your interest?
I have two older brothers who were the basketball stars of our high school, so obviously I was at every basketball game. I casually caught myself paying more attention to the tumble offs that would happen during timeout than the actual basketball games. I started going home in my bedroom with my cousin and trying to do a back handspring on my mattress. When I tried it by myself I hit my head, so I just went to bed [laughs] but I went to school the next day and was like, ‘I’m going to do it.’ So I went home and was just in the backyard throwing myself around. I ran to the front yard and was like, ‘Dad look at this!’ I did one, then I did two, then I did three. After that day I was like, ‘Ok I want to be a cheerleader!’ Every time I was at the games I would watch what they did and would go home and try it.
I started out as the mascot for my school because they didn’t think I was serious about cheer because I was the only boy who ever wanted to do it there. They didn’t trust a boy in our town to actually take it seriously, so they made me the mascot and all I did was tumble up and down the court during timeouts or during football games. So that’s technically how I got into it and then after a while I asked if I was able to cheer and my parents said no. They let me go to a cheer clinic that the school held and we had a performance that my mom, dad and brothers came to, but nobody said anything. They just walked out, we got in the car and went home and nobody said anything. One day my mom was like, ‘What do you want to do?’ And I was like, ‘I want to cheer. I want to do back flips and cheer.’ So she took me to the first gym I ever went to called CNZ All Stars. I was only there for like a month because they started canceling all the competitions we were supposed to go to. So my actual first All Star gym was Natalie’s Cheer and Tumble (NCT All Stars), which I cheered at until I graduated. Then I stopped All Star cheer and went to Eastern Michigan for a year where I did cheer and track, and then I ended up cheering at Navarro for the past four years. And now I’m at Texas Tech still pursuing my love for cheer and my passion for dance and performing also.
How did you balance both track and cheer in college?
I woke up at 6 a.m, did track and field until noon, had class from noon until 3 p.m., had cheer practice from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., got home, did homework, went to bed, woke up and did it all again the next day! [Laughs]
How did track at the collegiate level come into the picture for you?
I actually got recruited by Eastern Michigan, Kent State, and another school for track and field. I started track when I was in fifth grade and was really good in my school. I was the Regional Champion for high jump and hurdles in 2017-18. Then I went to states for all four of my events. I had a really good resume for track so I ended up going for that. Towards the end of my first semester I kind of had to quit because I was like, ‘I can’t keep pushing my body this hard.’ But then I was like, ‘If I’m not going to do track I want to go somewhere that’s going to teach me how to be a great cheerleader.’ I saw Navarro when I was in Daytona (with Eastern) and I was like, ‘I’m going there.’ I didn’t even know it was a junior college! That’s when I ended up moving to Texas, by myself, no family or anything, just me, my suitcase and an Uber to Corsicana!
Everything changed after you went to Navarro because you were a part of the Netflix show Cheer, which really blew up and became kind of mainstream. Did you like being filmed?
It was crazy because when I went to Navarro I didn’t know anything about the show. I didn’t know anyone on the team, I was just a person who saw them in Daytona and was like, ‘See that quick drive? I want to do this and I’m going to do it.’ My family didn’t want me to do it and I did it anyway. When I got there and they said we were going to be on Netflix, my first reaction was ‘Ok let’s see if this actually happens.’ It blew my mind because I didn’t know this was going to be a thing. What if I listened to my family and what they said about not wanting me to move to Texas by myself? … I wouldn’t have been a part of all these amazing opportunities! As for being filmed, I just let the punches roll. I went to practice everyday and when they asked to film or interview me I would say yeah, obviously, because it’s an opportunity to do something I’ve never done before. In those moments it was cool to talk to people because I never got the chance to explain my life to anyone when I moved there. Everyone already knew each other and I was just trying to blend in!
Was there any part of you that thought it was going to be a show that only people in the cheer industry were going to watch? Did you ever imagine it becoming what it became?
Well there already is a show on Netflix (Cheer Squad) about the Cheer Sport Great White Sharks. I watched that, but that was one of those shows that was only in the cheer world. So that’s what I thought it was going to be! Everything happened at the perfect time. I’m not saying COVID was the best thing, but the show came out and then COVID happened so everyone was forced to watch it. I feel like if COVID never happened – I’m not saying it wouldn’t be as big as it is – but I feel like people weren’t going to be forced to watch it and it wouldn’t have become as mainstream.
What was your favorite opportunity that came as a result of the show? I mean, you were on Ellen twice and got to do a stunt with Kylie Jenner!
Oh my gosh [laughs] I’ve never thought of that! When all this stuff happened I never begged or pleaded. Every opportunity I had I was like, ‘If you want me to, sure! I don’t know what I’m doing!’ I guess I would say my favorite opportunity was the tour, because the tour was actually supposed to happen in 2020 and obviously got taken away and we never heard anything else about it after that. We thought we were all about to be superstars, me and all my friends on my team, and then it got taken away and we thought it was never going to happen again. Last year out of nowhere they were like, ‘Hey we’re going to do a tour but it’s not going to be based on just Navarro, it’s going to be based on any good cheerleader.’ Instead of going off and trying to do something else because life shut down, I kept working on the one thing I wanted to do and that’s perform on a stage. And boom! I got chosen to be a part of the tour again.
You absolutely killed it on tour! You’re such a great dancer and performer, it was hard to take my eyes off you!
Thank you! People all the time say it blows their mind because of where I came from. I never really knew what I wanted to do in life. I’ve always loved to tumble and my favorite part of cheer is performing, but I’m not a dancer, so I didn’t know how I would get on a stage. I kind of just spoke it into existence! I just keep doing my thing until things happen and things keep happening!
Looking back, what about your favorite memory from your whole career so far?
Honestly, my favorite memory is last year at Navarro and winning Grand National Champion. It was a long five years. Yes, my first year I won, but I came back because I wanted to be a leader and learn more. Every chance I got to be a leader, something happened. In 2020 everything got canceled. In 2021 I was secluded in my own apartment so I wasn’t the leader I wanted to be and then we lost. I left and stopped cheering for a semester. A lot in my life went on and then I went back in the spring last year and I just felt like when we won it was the biggest weight off of my shoulders. Everything I went through in the past year was worth it. The heartbreaks, the family issues … holding the trophy felt like, ‘You know what? I did it!’ That’s when I started doing everything I wanted to do in life, like opening my own business and dancing on stage and being my actual self and not who people want me to be. After that win in Daytona last year I decided I didn’t care. It’s me, myself and I until the day I die!
How did the idea to start your own choreography business come about?
I have loved cheer dancing for a long time! Cheer dancing is its own thing. I’m not a dancer, I’m a cheer dancer, and I feel like I’m starting to make people realize this is a genre of dance. After life last year I decided it was time for me to do me – just for me. I sat in my friend Alex Bouhuys living room one day and was like, ‘We’re creating an LLC right now!’ And he helped me through the process. I started off as a dream I always had and I just had to get to a point where I knew I was comfortable with myself. I went to Daytona and was like, ‘We’re going to do this!’ And it’s actually doing really well! I had a goal of 10 people at the end of the year and I already have 35! I guess I was still in the phase of my dream to be a choreographer and not realizing that’s exactly where I’m at. I think I finally realized, ‘You’re in your dream! Quit dreaming of it because it’s right here.’
What do you hope to do in the future?
My biggest thing right now is going 100% on my hobbies. That’s doing choreography; I really want to choreograph a production. It doesn’t matter where it’s at, who it’s with or what it’s for, I just really know that I can choreograph a whole performance. The day I get to do that will be the day where I’m like, ‘Ok I did everything I ever wanted.’ My other hobbies are videography, editing videos, and photography; I’ve been booking people to take their senior pictures recently. I’m learning how to build my company but also if Cheer House turns out to be as amazing as it is, I know I’m going to want to be a part of Nikole Vallins and Jordan Richbart’s group one day. I just feel like after the tour happens and we learn what this new tour is. We keep saying this is the new thing that’s going to happen for years to come and I’m going to want to be a part of it for years to come and make it better and better. My time as an athlete is surely coming to an end soon because my body is getting very tired, but I’d love to stay in the industry and that’s what is cool about the tour. Whatever sparks me to keep on with it I guess!
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned so far in your life?
Not to make everything a big deal. I’ve been through a lot, I’ve lost a lot of friends, I’ve regained some friends, and one thing I’ve learned is that sometimes you need to take a couple of steps back in a situation to understand the other person, so you and that person can take ten steps forward. That’s the biggest lesson I learned from Navarro because you are hardcore training so much and sometimes you get lost in the sauce and not realizing that everyone lives life in their own way. If you take those steps back and learn to understand the other side, that other side will do the same for you so you can take 10, 20 or 40 steps together. There’s point in drama or problems anymore. We’re all adults here at this point. I want all my friends and family to succeed just as much as me.
Calling All Cheer Superstars!
Join James and an incredible cast of cheerleaders on tour this summer! See below for open audition information!