Our cavalcade of All Stars continues with a lass from down New Orleans way. For the past two years, the Saintsations have brought a couple of girls to P-R-O and this year was no exception. With a Drew Brees led team on the field and the Saintsations on the sidelines, the people of Louisiana are truly blessed. So without further ado, introducing Saintsation Taylor, our next 2014 P-R-O Convention All Star.
Our parade moves on…stay tuned to see who is our next P-R-O Convention All Star.
A passion for dancing and a desire to celebrate her 40th birthday in a monumental way were two things that led Kriste Lewis to the New Orleans Saints’ practice facility for a life-changing experience.
Standing before a panel of judges, Lewis combated her nerves by remembering her husband’s motto — “focus and fun” — as she tried out for the New Orleans Saintsations in April.
After six months of dance, fitness training and the love and support of her family and friends, Lewis said she prepared herself to mark a life experience off her bucket list.
“For me, trying out for the Saintsations was something I always wanted to do,” she said. “It was on my bucket list. I grew up on the coast and was a Saints fan all my life. … I went into (the tryout) with the idea that the audition would be a celebration.”
Saintsations Director Lesslee Fitzmorris said Lewis’ attitude and training paid off.
“When she needed to blend with the others, she did, and when she needed to stand out, she did,” Fitzmorris said. “For example, the first audition was a dance audition. None of the judges knew her age and judged her strictly on her presentation and dance ability. The second phase of the audition process was the professional interview. It was during this phase that Kriste stood out. In the final selection process, it was a unanimous decision to put her on the team.”
Serving her church and community as a dance fitness instructor, the mother of two said she never expected to be reacquainted with a part of herself she’d lost when she began training to try out for the NFL cheerleading team.
“I had honestly forgotten how much I loved to dance,” she said. “When you’re an instructor and you’re in that situation, you’re really dancing for who is in your class. You’re leading them in exercise. It’s not just for you. … I told my husband, ‘Please remind me after this audition to not stop dancing.’ ”
Lewis doesn’t just dance now because she loves it — it helps maintain her health.
Lewis, whose family has a history of kidney issues, was diagnosed with kidney disease 14 years ago. After watching her mother’s body reject a transplanted kidney twice, Lewis said she made the decision to live a healthy lifestyle as well as make the most of each day.
“Today is the day, not tomorrow,” she said. “Wear your best shoes. Don’t save that bottle of wine. Why are you hoarding that from yourself? … I know there is no cure for (my kidney disease,) and I know that I will be on dialysis and in need of a transplant, but I could be killed in a car wreck tomorrow. … I think too many times we wait too late to start on our bucket lists. Start it while you feel good and can enjoy it.”
Fitzmorris said after surviving bacterial meningitis, she understands Lewis’ “time is precious” outlook, and said she believes Lewis’ story will inspire a wide range of people.
“I know that she will inspire others to overcome adversity, never give up and send the message to go for your dreams and anything is possible,” she said. “This message should serve as a reminder to everyone that you only live once, so start checking off your life’s bucket list.”
As one of the 36 talented women who make up this year’s Saintsations team, Lewis said she’s had a fantastic time getting to know each of her teammates.
Lewis is joined by fellow Pine Belt residents Summer Rials, Sara Friday, Sara Bass and Lee Armstrong.
“It’s a family,” Lewis said. “It’s like I have 35 little sisters. They are such sweet girls. … All of the girls are so intelligent and they are so kind and well-rounded.
Fitzmorris said with Lewis’ background and life experience, she wasn’t sure how this year’s team would relate to one another.
“At our first meeting, it was immediately apparent that everyone on the team had respect for each other and appreciated the different perspectives and the team’s diversity,” she said. “The younger ones look up to the older ones for life advice on school, careers and relationships and the older ones look up to the younger ones for advice and tips on the latest trends and to not take things too seriously.”
Having spent time as an English teacher, dance instructor and stay-at-home mother, Lewis said she hopes her personal story shows the world that a woman can be anything she aspires to be at any age.
“It goes back to a definition of what a 40-year-old woman could be or should be, and they forget that you can be beautiful and smart,” she said. “Just because you don’t work doesn’t mean you can’t be a doctor or lawyer. I think my generation especially is redefining (that image.)”
Lewis’ mission to redefine what a woman is and can be falls in line with the Saintsation’s mission to reach out to the community and young girls.
“Our program encompasses more than just dance and cheer,” she said. “My emphasis is team building and teaching young women how to represent in a positive manner. We do a lot of community work and work with children. We understand that we serve as role models for young girls.”
As the Saintsations begin their community involvement, and as football season approaches, Lewis said she is getting more and more excited to cheer for her favorite team.
Lewis said she fully intends to soak up all the wonderful experiences this year has to offer, and is looking forward to trying out again in the years to come.
“I can’t even fathom what it’s going to be like to walk out on that field in the Superdome with all those Saints fans,” she said. “I hope I don’t pass out. … If I died tomorrow, I’m good. I’m a happy girl. It’s been a blast.”
At a glance
Family: Husband, Tim Lewis, sons, Jake, 14, and Rob, 11
Lauren Jones, marketing junior, traded her Loyola dance team pompoms to become a member of the New Orleans Saints’ Saintsation cheerleading team.
Before she was a member of Loyola’s dance team her freshman and sophomore years, Jones considered herself a ballerina. At Loyola, she adjusted to more contemporary dance forms such as hip hop and jazz.
Although she was able to transition smoothly into new dance genres while at Loyola, her Saintsation journey didn’t happen overnight.
Jones first tried out for the Saintsations in spring 2012. She made it to the final round, but was cut shortly after, causing her to become determined to make the team the following year. Jones began working even harder to fulfill her dream and overcome rejection, because she said nothing worth having comes easy. Her mindset switched to focusing on factors she could control.
“I knew I could control my dancing, fitness, health, and body. I was like, let me make sure I’m eating right, in the gym as much as I can, but also balancing my studies and look where I am now,” Jones said.
Dana Dolliole, Saintsation veteran, met Jones when she first tried out for the Saintsations. Although Jones didn’t make the cut, Dolliole still kept in touch, motivating her to never give up on her dream.
“I would tell her to do her best, never take anything to heart, and give it her all,” Dolliole said.
Jones said she went into “dancing boot camp” mode by working with a trainer, exercising five to six days of the week, and changing up her eating habits.
Her improvements didn’t go unnoticed. Jones made the 2013 team and was finally able to fulfill her dream of becoming a Saintsation.
Dolliole said she was happy to see Jones auditioning and joining the Saintsations the following year.
Each year, Saintsation veterans randomly draw names to become rookie’s “big sisters” on the team. Dolliole said it was fate when she picked Jones’ name.
“She’s great on the team, and she’s always going above and beyond,” Dolliole said. “This whole time, I’ve been very proud and happy for her. I really do feel like a big sister.”
Jones continues to work out five to six times a week. She said she enjoys cardio and runs to stay fit, but also sprinkles in squats and intensive abdomen workouts. Jones balances her workouts by eating three big meals and two small meals each day, and her on-the-go snacks include granola, fruit, apples, and bananas.
“You want good things to go into your body so it can function correctly,” Jones said.
She said staying healthy has become a part of her lifestyle.
“I don’t look at food as ‘this is healthy so it’s not going to taste good.’ I look at it like ‘is this going to benefit me later?’” Jones said.
Jones had to give up her ballet minor and her spot on Loyola’s Golden Eyes dance team once she joined the Saintsations, but she attributes her success to Loyola’s dance team.
“I probably wouldn’t be a Saintsation if I wasn’t on Loyola’s dance team,” Jones said.
Jones believes becoming a Saintsation incorporates everything she loves about dance.
“I’ve always been a Saints fan, a dancer and dreamed of performing in front of thousands of people. I just felt like it was the perfect balance putting them together,” Jones said.
Alisia Senegal, biology senior and former Loyola dance team captain, had the opportunity to co-captain with Jones last year. She said they were always in sync, and Jones knew what she was thinking before she even said it.
“Lauren was my right-hand man. She helped by making up new dances, cutting the music for all of our performances, and running practices when I had organic test reviews,” Senegal said.
Senegal said their friendship grew into a sisterly bond. Senegal said it’s always “fun” to dance together, which is why the duo performed a dance for the Black Student Union’s annual talent show for two consecutive years.
“Dancing for both of us was like an outlet and most importantly we love doing it,” Senegal said.
Senegal said they also met on weekends to work on choreography, and even remembers the weekend when they tried to master Beyoncé’s video dances. Their practices paid off last winter when the Loyola dance team was fortunate enough to be a part of Beyoncé’s Super Bowl half time performance, Senegal said.
Juggling school and being a Saintsation hasn’t been an easy task, but Jones said time management is key. She says the Saintsations only practice on Tuesdays and Thursday for about two and a half hours.
“If you think about it, I’m at Loyola more than I am at practice,” Jones said.
Jones said her favorite player is Drew Brees. Even though Jones is from Atlanta, home of the Saints’ rival team, the Atlanta Falcons, she said it doesn’t hinder her love for the Saints.
“My family is originally from New Orleans so I’ve always been a Saints fan,” Jones said. “I love my Saints.”
Jones said that becoming a Saintsation has been a dream come true.
“Being a Saintsation is something I wanted to do for a very long time. Now that the season is almost over, it still doesn’t feel real,” Jones said.
Christine Nezelkewicz thought the toughest part of becoming a cheerleader for the New Orleans Saints would be the grueling, three-day tryouts.
But then she found herself on an airboat in the Louisiana bayou posing with alligators for the squad’s 2013-2014 swimsuit calendar.
The risk was worth the reward for the Scranton native: Ms. Nezelkewicz, a 2002 graduate of Scranton High School who studied fashion merchandising at Philadelphia University, was named the cover girl and appears as Miss April in the popular 14-month publication.
This year’s calendar, the theme of which was “Sportsman’s Paradise,” was shot on location throughout Louisiana. The cheerleaders – called the Saintsations – posed for photos that celebrate hunting, fishing and other sports and also highlighted the Pelican State’s natural backdrop.
“It was something new for me, so I just tried to listen to my director and whatever the photographer would say, think happy thoughts and smile,” Ms. Nezelkewicz said during a recent phone interview.
Around 25 girls participated in the calendar shoot in June, she said, though no one knew if they made it onto the pages until a reveal party held in August.
The achievement is one Ms. Nezelkewicz’s father, Chester, is happy to boast about.
“My dad is my biggest cheerleader,” she said with a laugh. “He carries around my calendar no matter where he goes. He’s already sold a whole box for me.”
The calendar is the icing on the cake for Ms. Nezelkewicz, who always dreamed of being an NFL cheerleader. In high school, she was a basketball cheerleader for four years, and she also was part of Penn State Worthington Scranton’s squad while studying there before she moved to Philadelphia.
After she earned her bachelor’s degree, Ms. Nezelkewicz moved to the South (“I love the warm weather,” she said), where she received certification in vascular ultrasound sonography and lives with her sister, Chelsea Grow, a neurologist.
By day, Ms. Nezelkewicz lives in Hattiesburg, Miss., and works as a vascular sonographer at a clinic with a vascular surgeon. Two nights each week, however, she commutes two hours to Louisiana for Saintsations practice with a couple of her squadmates.
“I tried out when I first moved down here and didn’t make it,” she explained. “But it’s something I’ve always wanted.”
To give herself the edge she needed, Ms. Nezelkewicz enrolled in dance classes and trained for a year and a half before trying out again.
“I’ve never taken dance before, but (these girls) are very skilled, technical dancers,” she said. “I learned basics in a studio with little girls.
“It was overwhelming, but I love that the cheerleaders are role models. No matter how hard it is, keep following your dreams. Work hard and strive for your goals, and it’ll pay off.”
Finding balance between her career and cheerleading isn’t easy, she added.
“It’s a big commitment,” Ms. Nezelkewicz said. “(But) it doesn’t really interfere with my job.”
The process of joining the Saintsations began in April with workshops and dance auditions that drew more than 200 women. After learning a few routines and surviving several rounds of cuts and interviews, Ms. Nezelkewicz was called back with the 35 other girls who were named to the 2013-2014 squad.
Though the tryouts were intimidating, making the team gave Ms. Nezelkewicz hard-earned confidence, she said.
The next few months were a whirlwind of head shots, team-bonding exercises and get-to-know-you retreats, biweekly practices and more. Once football season began, the Saints bested the Atlanta Falcons during the home opener, and the excitement just increased from there.
“The fans, everyone is really nice and really excited, and absolutely give us support at the games and on the field,” Ms. Nezelkewicz said. “I’m excited for my new love for the Saints. … They’re America’s team. The city is so great, and the vibe is good.
“I hope to represent my hometown of Scranton, Pa., well,” she added. “(I) am proud and thankful for my friends and family supporting me while I live out my dreams as a NFL cheerleader.”
Saintsations Chastity Sorrels (left) and Sarah Friday -- both Coast natives -- made an appearance in downtown Ocean Springs Monday to sign autographs and pose for photos
With the New Orleans Saints sitting at 5-0 and in first place in the NFC South, it doesn’t take much these days to elicit smiles from Saints fans.
But fans were given even more reason to smile Monday afternoon in Ocean Springs as two members of the Saintsations cheerleading squad made an appearance at a downtown pub.
Best of all, both young women are homegrown.
Sarah Friday, 21, is a 2010 graduate of St. Martin High School, where she was (surprise!) a cheerleader and dance team member. Her mother, Cheryl Friday, is a teacher at St. Martin Middle School.
Alongside Friday was 27-year-old Chastity Sorrels, a Picayune native and Biloxi High School teacher now in her fourth season with the Saintsations.
The two posed for pictures and signed Saintsation calendars for fans at Kwitzky’s Dugout on Government Street. Their appearance was sponsored by Tim Wold of F.E.B. Distributing.
After high school, Friday went on to dance at Pearl River Community College and said she “wanted to continue dancing,” which led her to audition for the Saintsations in April.
Sorrels said anywhere from 100 to 350 aspiring Saintsations try out each year, with 32-36 ultimately making the squad. Tryouts last a week and in addition to proving their dancing skills, each candidate is required to pass a football knowledge test issued by the NFL.
“It’s an unbelievable experience,” Friday said of her first season. “It’s very rewarding in every way.”
The two Coast women are among six from Mississippi this season.
Once selected in April, the squad practices twice a week every week prior to and during the season — including weeks when the Saints are on the road. NFL cheerleading squads only perform at home games.
One practice is held in Baton Rouge, with the other in New Orleans — meaning the two Coast natives are on the road quite a bit.
For the married Sorrels, it makes for a hectic schedule. After graduating from the University of Southern Mississippi with a degree in Sports Administration, she earned a Masters in Education from William Carey in 2010 — the same year she became a Saintsation.
“It was crazy that year,” she said. “That was the year after we won the Super Bowl. There must have been 350 girls trying out that year.”
She now teaches and is, naturally, the cheerleading coach at Biloxi High.
“What keeps me coming back is meeting new people, making new friends,” Sorrels said. “Plus it also gives me an opportunity to set a good example for my girls (cheerleaders).”
Former Saintsation and Miss Louisiana USA Candice Stewart was one of two “Big Brother” contestants eliminated from the CBS reality game show Thursday (Aug. 8). The other, in a surprise: Judd Daugherty.
Now a pediatric speech therapist and pageant coach in Houston, Stewart, a Xavier University graduate, joins the “jury” of evicted players that will vote on the season’s winner.
It was an unpleasant exit for her, by unanimous vote by her fellow contestants, though her later interview with Julie Chen went somewhat better. Stewart has been the target of racist remarks by her fellow contestants this season, and CBS’ response to that atmosphere sparked a controversy, which continues. It will be the issue the season is remembered for, no matter who wins. Meanwhile, the controversy has been good for the show’s ratings.
“I felt like the game got really personal this week,” Stewart told Chen. “I don’t let people talk about me.”
Growing up in Metairie, it was Kristen Girault’s dream to be a Saintsation.
She began dancing at the age of 3 and joined the Junior Saintsation program the first chance she could. She was a member of her high school dance team, the Carmelettes, at Mount Carmel Academy. After she graduated in 2009, she reached her dream while at LSU as she earned a spot on the Saintsations in 2010.
Along with performing for the Saintsations and studying at LSU, Girault was competing in beauty pageants. She was the first runner-up in Miss Louisiana Teen USA 2009 and 2010, and was in the top 10 of Miss Louisiana USA 2012.
After a number of strong finishes, Girault took the spotlight on Oct. 27, 2012 as she was named Miss Louisiana USA 2013 at the annual pageant at the Heymann Performing Arts Center in Lafayette, La.
Her life was a whirlwind after being crowned. The title quickly took over the three-year Saintsation’s life as it became her full-time job to represent the state.
“I have received some incredible opportunities that I would not have gotten otherwise if not for this honor,” said Girault. “I have been able to travel the state and met some people in a new way. Everything changes for you.”
Girault took the national stage on June 16 when she competed in the 62nd Miss USA pageant. With more than 85 family members and friends cheering her on at the Theatre for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, Girault made the first cut of the 51 contestants to earn a spot in the top-15 for Miss USA. After her showing in the swimsuit competition, she reached the top 10. She was eliminated after the evening gown competition.
Girault became the first Miss Louisiana to finish in the top 10 of the Miss USA contest since Ali Landry from Breaux Bridge won the Miss USA 1996 title.
“I wasn’t too nervous,” she said of the Miss USA contest. “It was weird but with the group of girls we had, we were very calm going into the show. It didn’t hit me until right before I went on stage for the live telecast.”
A little over a week since the Miss USA competition, Girault is still trying to recuperate from her state-wide tour but she is incredibly grateful for the experience.
“Everybody was nice after and asking if I knew how well my finish was historically in the competition and I would say ‘Yes I do, but I really just want to sleep now,’” joked Girault.
During her time as Miss Louisiana, Girault has been a strong advocate for a healthy lifestyle and has stressed the importance of eating healthy and staying active. She has promoted numerous charities, including American Heart Association, Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, Children’s Miracle Network and Habitat for Humanity.
Girault credits her time with the Saintsations for helping her prepare for the rigorous responsibilities of being Miss Louisiana. As a Saintsation, the Metairie native would travel throughout Louisiana and the Gulf Coast for public appearances. During a number of those visits, Girault encouraged kids to keep up a healthy lifestyle through the NFL’s Play 60 program. .
“Being on the (Saintsations) for three years definitely gave me the biggest workouts of my life, especially on gamedays,” said Girault. “It prepared me physically for that. Making appearances in the city as a Saintsation helped me learn how to best represent my team and city, similar to my role now in representing the state. Going out and traveling the state was a breeze as Miss Louisiana because it became second nature for me due to my time as a Saintsation.”
Things are beginning to slow down for Girault. In August, she will return to LSU Nursing School in New Orleans. She will continue her education there for two and half years. She plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 2015 and become a Registered Nurse.
Girault is not sure what the future holds after she finishes with school. However, if her young resume smothered in accolades is any indication, the sky is the limit for the 22-year old former Saintsation.