I’ve always wanted to be an NFL cheerleader for the New England Patriots. My mom has owned her own dance studio for over 40 years, and I’ve spent my entire life dancing. I’ve been a diehard Patriots fan for as long as I remember, and many of her studio alumni become Patriots cheerleaders. In 2013, when I was 20 years old, I decided it was time to go out for the squad. Actually making it has turned out to take much more than just courage and practice.
My preparation began months before audition day. Every meal and workout was meticulously planned. Training encompassed cardio, weight training, flexibility, and dance technique. All of these things needed to come together perfectly by audition day. I even prepared mentally; I studied videos and pictures, the team’s website—anything I could find, but I still felt like I was walking in blind.
My first audition was amazing. All I wanted to do was to make it past the first round, to know I’d caught the judges’ eyes. To my surprise and excitement, I not only made it past the first cut at preliminaries, I made it to the final round. I was in disbelief. Depending on the year, anywhere from 300 to 500 girls go out for the squad.
We had two weeks to get ready. We prepared for our swimsuit round and interview, and then performed our choreographed dances and solo routine. Because you’ve been given two weeks to perfect the dances, mistakes are not tolerated. I was in one of the first groups to perform, and I was a nervous wreck. As many dancers will tell you with big performances, you completely black out and let muscle memory and the joy of performing take over, and that’s just what I did. I left the dance floor feeling great; I didn’t mess up, and I felt confident in what I showed the judges. Then came the hardest part: waiting. Everyone was on edge, staring intently at the closed door of the deliberation room.
Finally, the director came out with her clipboard of names, in no particular order. With every name the lump my throat got bigger and bigger, until I heard, “Paige Bennett.” I did it, and I was headed to “boot camp,” the very last audition phase.
What started as hundreds of dancers dwindled down to around 50 women at boot camp. We went through intensive workouts, dance training, and media training. Those days are my favorite memories. Driving up to Gillette Stadium every week, home of the (now) five-time Super Bowl champions—it was surreal.
After boot camp is over, the official team roster is posted online. If your name is there, you made it; if not, you didn’t. That day, I refreshed my browser until I had a cramp in my hand. I never left my computer once. Finally, the roster was live, and my name wasn’t there. I scanned the screen over and over until it reality hit. Then I cried—hard. It took me a day to fully bounce back and return to my normal life. It also took me a day to decide I would be back again the next year for auditions.
That was 2013. Four audition seasons and three more boot camps later, my dream is still alive. That next year, even knowing what to expect and how to prepare, led to the same result: looking for my name, not finding it.
This past audition season, just a few months ago, was my fourth try. Same process, same dream. Every day when I woke up, every meal I ate, every workout I put in: I pictured myself in that uniform. But this year was a bit different. While making the squad was still my goal, so was finishing the 2017 Boston Marathon. That made it interesting. My weekends were split between hours running in the cold and hours in the studio working on dance technique. I want to make that cheerleading squad, but it’s not the only thing I want from life.
This year was my favorite by far. I felt more confident and more prepared than ever before. This process forces you to figure out who you are and what you bring to the table. It forces you to realize your worth and be confident in your individuality.
Nevertheless, my name wasn’t on the final roster after yet another journey through preliminaries, finals, and boot camp. Did I fail? Yes, yes I did. Am I OK? Better than ever. Failure means progress, and I’ve learned to embrace it.
The toughest part, for me, has been that there are so many things that go into the selection of this team. While you don’t get specific feedback, the director tells the group at boot camp: “Maybe this year, it just wasn’t your year; come back next year if you don’t see your name on that roster,” and all you can do is take that sentiment and run with it. But I think she’s right. I’m not where I want to be, but it doesn’t mean I don’t have what it takes. I think it’s a great feeling to be able to tell yourself, “I’m not even at my best yet.”
Each year I’ve been fairly public about all of it, too, posting pictures from the auditions and RSVPing to NEPC auditions on Facebook. But I’ve never been embarrassed when people have asked about the result. No, I still didn’t make it, but failure fuels my fire. I’d rather people question my aspirations than understand by excuses.
The best thing I did during this process was to refuse to see the other women as competitors. Instead I embraced them as potential teammates. Getting caught up with negativity and “Why her?” is self-defeating.
I can tell you firsthand it’s very intimidating to walk into a competitive situation with hundreds of beautiful, accomplished women. But instead of finding rivals, I’ve found lifelong friends. These women are such a big part of why I continue to audition. Some are on the team and some aren’t; I’m blessed to have been touched by the encouragement I’ve had from the Patriots Cheerleading organization. Everyone has their own story and journey to the sidelines, and no one gets there alone.
Because I’m more afraid of never trying than I am of failing, I’ve made it a personal mission to keep learning. Failure in one area doesn’t mean I don’t have what it takes to accomplish other goals, like landing my dream job in finance or running 26.2 miles. Two weeks after being rejected by the Patriots squad for a fourth year, I crossed that finish line of the Boston Marathon surrounded by friends and family.
No, I never choose the easy route. I choose to risk failing over taking a path that leads to a place I’ve already been. Despite not having reached my goal—yet—I will be back next year. I promised myself I’ll keep going back until it no longer makes sense. I think I’ll know what that means if and when the times comes, but now, I’m getting ready for next year.
Originally published at www.glamour.com