Reprinted from the Daily Hampshire Gazette:
Anastasia “Anna” Lusnia grew up in Easthampton, Massachusetts rooting for the New England Patriots.
As a youth, she watched two of her favorite players, quarterback Tom Brady and tight end Rob Gronkowski, lead the Patriots to multiple Super Bowls. Unfortunately, she never got to attend a game. Her sister had that opportunity.
But everything has worked out.
After graduating from Easthampton High in 2015, Lusnia moved to Tampa, Florida. In the five years she has lived in the Sunshine State, she graduated from college, became a full-time nurse and cheered for the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Lusnia left the Lightning after the 2018-2019 season for a shot with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. She landed the job, and now finds herself cheering for Brady and Gronk from the sidelines.
“It’s wild,” she said. “I never would have imagined I would be cheering in Tampa and they would be here with me. … It’s pretty surreal.”
A friend cheered for the Lightning, which was how Lusnia got involved with the NHL franchise that recently won the Stanley Cup.
A dancer her whole life, she thought cheering for the Lightning would be a fun way to continue performing. It turned out to be more than just that.
“I think representing an organization so large as the Tampa Bay Lightning provided so many experiences that I never knew existed,” she said. “Just meeting the fans, the season-ticket holder members; I even got to link up with a surgeon who was a season-ticket holder member and I’m a nurse so I got to shadow him; do all sorts of things I never would have imagined I could do by being a cheerleader for the Lightning.”
Lusnia, 23, pursued the opportunity with the Bucs earlier this year.
“After my experience (with the Lightning) I kind of thought maybe I’ll take it to the NFL,” she said. “To me that’s the ultimate in terms of the professional cheer world.”
The COVID-19 pandemic made tryouts interesting. Lusnia started training in February in both a gym and dance studio, then auditioned virtually in early May. Over the course of a couple weeks she had Zoom meetings and sent more videos.
Prior to the audition the Bucs landed two of the most prominent Patriots. Brady signed in March and Gronkowski was traded to Tampa Bay in April. By mid-May, Lusnia received a phone call that only added to the excitement.
“I was in full scrubs, not expecting it all,” she said of the phone call. “It was a video call and they recorded my reaction, which I did not know at the time. They caught me off guard, but it was an amazing day for sure.”
As an intensive care nurse at Tampa General Hospital, Lusnia is well aware of the pandemic and the issues the coronavirus can cause. Prior the start of the NFL season, there was a lot of uncertainty as to whether she would cheer or not.
“It’s been a roller coaster of a ride,” she said. “We’ve been just kind of living day by day. We never really knew if we were going to be able to cheer or if there were ever going to be fans. We’ve been practicing and training since June with the goal and hope that we will cheer, and dance and perform at some point in the season, whether it was the first game or midway through (the season). We’ve certainly been living on the edge. Just have to be super fluid with everything going on.”
Cheering has been an outlet from her full-time job.
“Dance has always been a No. 1 passion for me and it’s certainly a lot different than my work in the hospital, even just the physical exercise,” she said. “I’ve always loved to work for something and the drive and the determination to get to where I want to be physically and performance wise. It’s definitely a great outlet.”
Lusnia has a deep background in dance. She trained for 15 years at the Hackworth School of Performing Arts in Easthampton, as well as the Massachusetts Academy of Ballet in Holyoke.
She has also been involved with the Miss America Organization, holding the titles of Miss Pioneer Valley, Miss Baystate and Miss Kissimmee in Florida. She competed in Miss Massachusetts pageants in 2015 and 2016, as well as the Miss Florida pageant in 2017.
She moved to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida.
“That’s one of the things when discovering this whole professional cheerleading world is you can have a full-time job and cheer for a professional sports team,” Lusnia said. “Both with the Lightning and Buccaneers we don’t travel to away games so that’s my saving grace. I don’t think I could do both, nursing and cheering if we did. It’s an amazing way to continue (dancing). I never really imagined after college I could still be dancing at this level so intensely and frequently.”
Lusnia’s first NFL game was Sunday when the Bucs hosted the Los Angeles Chargers. Brady threw for five touchdowns as the Bucs rallied for a 38-31 win.
“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “I think the adrenalin of the pregame, watching the players warm up, being right outside that home tunnel, our locker room is kind of right behind it; taking it all in was just incredible.”
A bonus that comes with cheering for the Bucs this year is that no matter what happens with Tampa Bay, the Super Bowl will be played at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. So whether Brady, Gronk and the Bucs are playing in the game or not, Lusnia will be participating.
“We will be at a ton of events in Tampa for the Super Bowl, regardless if we are in it,” she said. “I am very, very excited for really any outcome because it’s here in our city at our stadium. We’ll get to be a part of it.”
Writer Mike Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.