The Story Behind America’s Favorite Cheer Coach – Monica Aldama
By Ashlee Buhler
It all started with an email one fall afternoon back in 2017. The email was coming from a producer by the name of Omar Bustos; he was interested in creating a documentary series about cheerleading and was intrigued by the dynasty Monica Aldama had created at Navarro College, a community college in the small town of Corsicana, about 50 miles north of Dallas, Texas.
At first, Aldama was skeptical about the idea. A self-proclaimed private person, the idea of opening herself up to the world was just a little bit daunting. Yet at the same time, she was tired of the stereotypes surrounding the sport; the ones where cheerleaders are all popular kids with pom poms serving as the sideline hype squad. Aldama wanted the world to see exactly what competitive cheerleading was all about. She wanted to spotlight the daily grind and hard work that goes into one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated sports there is. That desire was enough to outweigh any qualms she had about putting her life on TV screens around the world.
Aldama talked to the athletic department at Navarro, which eventually led to a conference call with the show’s director and creator Greg Whiteley. A crew flew out to Corsicana in February 2018 to film a few days of practice for a proof of concept. Netflix bought it and the rest is history.
Nobody could have ever predicted what came next. One email, one decision, was all it took to not only change Aldama’s life, but the public perception of the sport that had been her life since she was a young girl cheering in Corsicana.
When season one of Cheer was released January 8, 2020, Aldama went from being a well-known and respected coach in the cheerleading world to a household name — now known around the world. Aldama didn’t expect many people to see the show, let alone A-list celebrities like Kendall Jenner, Reese Witherspoon and Billie Eilish.
“I assumed because it was cheerleading that maybe cheerleaders would watch it. None of us had any idea that the whole world would watch it and that we would be thrust into the spotlight like that,” Aldama told me as we chatted one afternoon in the midst of the 30-city CHEER Live tour she created with her assistant coach Andy Cosferent. In just a few hours she was due on stage for a Q&A session followed by a meet-and-greet for VIP ticket holders before the show. Then it was back on the tour bus and off to the next city. Aldama doesn’t get much free time these days. In fact, life hasn’t slowed down much at all in the last two and a half years.
It’s been a non-stop ride that has included talk show appearances like Ellen, performing on Dancing with the Stars, filming season two of Cheer, writing a book and traveling the country with the first ever cast of professional cheerleaders to perform live on tour. But behind all the hype from adoring fans is the same passionate coach who started coaching at Navarro 27 years ago. At the core, nothing has changed. “When I go back to work, everything feels very normal,” Aldama said.
With a Bachelor’s in Finance and a Masters in Business Administration, coaching was never a part of Aldama’s original plan. When she landed at Navarro in 1995, the gig was intended to be temporary as she waited for the right opportunity in her field. “This was kind of one of those in between jobs. Somebody wanted me to apply so I was like, ‘Ok sure.’” Aldama said with a laugh. “I had zero coaching experience so I don’t even know why they hired me to be honest.”
But it was one of the best decisions the college could have ever made. Never the type to slack off, Aldama poured her heart and soul into the job with two goals in mind: winning national championships and putting Navarro College on the map. “I was like, ‘I want to be the best of the best so if I’m gonna do this, I at least want to do it to the very best of my ability,’” she said.
27 years later, her team has won 15 NCA National titles and been crowned Grand National Champion six times, a status bestowed upon the team with the highest overall score regardless of division. Under Aldama’s leadership, Navarro became the first junior college in history to win the Grand National title. Her program also holds the record for the highest score ever achieved at the NCA College National Championships.
One might think all the titles and memories associated with it would blend together over time, but Aldama said each and every title, from her first in 2000 to her latest in 2022, stands out for its own reasons. Sure the trophies are nice, but for Aldama it’s the journey to each one that means the most.
“Obviously yes, we love to line up the trophies and see how many we have, but it’s about that feeling of achievement that comes with all those moments throughout the entire year,” she said. “Whether someone learns a new skill or we hit our first zero, all those little moments of success make the year special and if you top it off with the big win at the end of season then that’s the biggest adrenaline rush you’re going to get!”
Aldama has also put Navarro on the map, without a doubt. Prior to the show the vast majority of Americans had never heard of Navarro or its small town of Corsicana. Now they are the most talked about cheer team around the world, and Corsicana has become somewhat of a tourist destination. When the show first aired, Aldama would see busloads of people coming to campus every day. Over two years later, the campus still draws in fans from around the world. This past June a group of fans flew in from Belgium to see the campus and watch members of the team perform during the Dallas stop of CHEER Live.
“It’s not an uncommon story that people come to town, not just from other cities and states but other countries, and they’re interested!” Aldama said. “They want to see the actual college they saw on TV. It’s pretty much seven days a week. I can go up there on a weekend and see somebody walking around on campus. It’s really wild!”
The interest from budding Navarro Cheerleaders has spiked as well, with more and more people coming to tryouts and cheer clinics. Yet Aldama said life still feels normal when she’s not on the road doing appearances. Corsicana has always been her home and when she’s at work with her team, whether they’re cheering at the football or basketball game, doing community service, or preparing for Daytona season, its business as usual.
“Even when Netflix is filming, people would think it would be a distraction, and obviously it’s more work because they do want to follow you around, but at the same time, everybody is in there to put up the best performance they can at the competition and nothing’s gonna stop our grind for that,” she said.
While being filmed for 12 hours a day wasn’t exactly Aldama’s style, and she feels the show emphasized falls over all the safety measures her team has in place, at the end of the day she feels Cheer was worth it. It opened up the world of competitive cheerleading to people who had no idea the athleticism, the grit, the tears, and the preparation behind their performances — and that was exactly her goal. Since the show, Aldama has received countless messages from people in the cheerleading industry, thanking her for exposing the sport to people who just don’t get it; people who view cheerleaders as school spirit leaders and nothing else.
“Whether you want to call it a sport or not, these athletes are stronger and tougher than a lot of “sports.” Nobody can take that away,” Aldama said. “I think it was very eye opening for the public to see not only the athleticism of the athletes, but the commitment they have and the grind every day.”
On a personal level, Aldama knows there is more to the sport than teaching her team how to do a pyramid or point their toes. She values seeing the growth of her athletes, most of which are fresh out of high school when they come to her. She gladly helps guide them and teach them life skills, sometimes pulling double duty and serving as a mother figure for many on her team. She wants to set them up for when their time at Navarro comes to an end. When they come back to visit or give her a call, hearing their success stories brings a great sense of fulfillment.
“I have former cheerleaders call me five, six, or 10 years after they’ve left the program, just to tell me about a job promotion they got or that they’re getting married, or just something special in their life because they know I’m gonna be proud of them,” Aldama said. “It’s really about the relationships and seeing the growth in them as a person.”
And ultimately it’s those relationships that keep her coming back year after year.
27 years ago Navarro was a place she never envisioned staying. Now it’s a place she has built a legacy, impacted lives, changed the sport, and now, can never imagine leaving. “This is my baby,” she said. “How could I ever leave this?”
Photography of Navarro team: Jerry Hughes and Dustin Velasquez; Dancing with the Stars: Eric McCandless/ABC; Lead Photo: Nexflix
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