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Faith, Family, Football for NFL’s Oldest Cheerleader

Having escaped an abusive husband, she set her sights on an inspiring goal: to be a Ben-Gal.

Laura Vikmanis

"Action!” the director yelled. A camera crew huddled around me while I tore open the letter that could change my life. This is it, I thought. A local network was filming “The Making of a Ben-Gal,” a show about women who’d tried out for the Cincinnati Bengals cheerleading squad. Was my dream about to come true?

Ah, who was I kidding? The other girls auditioning were in their 20s. I was a divorced single mom about to turn 40. Me? An NFL cheerleader? Get real, Laura, I thought. I could hear my ex-husband’s voice in my head. You’re too old. Who do you think you are? Ugly. Idiot. Dumb.

I wasn’t always so hard on myself. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, I’d often catch Bengals games on TV. Whenever I caught a glimpse of the fit, glamorous Ben-Gals, I was mesmerized. They were everything I wanted to be.

After high school, I graduated from California State University with a degree in dietetics. I was ready to help others fall in love with staying healthy too.

Then I got married, moved back to Ohio and became a dietitian. Things looked picture-perfect—my husband and I had great jobs, a beautiful home. But just under the surface, my life was a nightmare. He was abusive and controlling.

It didn’t take long for me to believe the cruel things he said: “You’re ugly!” “I hate you!” “You don’t know anything!”

Still, I stayed. He was better around our daughters, Marija and Courtney, and I didn’t want to break up our family. To deal with the pain, I overate. I felt worthless. Until one day I grew the courage to leave him. For good.

Starting over was a blessing. I’d never been so happy with the girls, and I threw myself back into health and fitness. One Sunday I was invited to a Bengals game. The Ben-Gals took the field, and I was eight years old again, mesmerized by the glamour of those strong, beautiful women. That’s what I want to be, I thought.

The idea was ridiculous. But it inspired me to sign up for a dance class. One of the other girls had once cheered for the Ben-Gals. “You’re really good,” she said. “You should think about trying out for the squad.”

She didn’t think I was too old. Back home I went online and read up on the Ben-Gals. The pay was low. There were long practices, public appearances, charity work. I loved the idea of helping the community, and I could handle the low salary and hectic schedule…I printed out the application.

It’s not like I’ll make it, I thought, stuffing it in the mailbox.

A few weeks later I arrived at Paul Brown Stadium for the first round of auditions. The girls came in droves! About 120 of them. I looked around at the army of Barbies and panicked. Their faces were wrinkle-free, their lips lustrous and their hair—oh, their hair! I was the oldest. By far.

“Five, six, seven, eight!” a judge called. I kicked, did the double turn, then launched into a leap and…tripped. I tried once more and landed it. Phew! After a few more rounds of tryouts, they called my number. I’d made it to the finals!

There, my kicks were high (my hair was even higher), my leaps were on point and I nailed the dance.

Now it was time to find out if I was good enough. The girls came over and sat down next to me. I held that all-important letter, my hand trembling. I imagined myself running out onto the field, shaking those orange-and-black pom-poms.

I read it aloud: “Dear Ben-Gal Candidate, We appreciate your hard work. Unfortunately, your score did not make the final squad.”

I’d just been rejected. On air. In front of the whole city. The director turned off the cameras. “Hey,” he said, “I’m really sorry.”

The girls leaned in. “You did great, Mom,” Marija assured me.

“You made it to finals—most people never get that far,” Courtney said.

After wiping my tears, a calm fell over me. The girls were right. I’d overcome years of pain and abuse to make it to the finals of being an NFL cheerleader! How crazy was that? I was already a winner with two beautiful girls—cheerleaders of my own. That was something to celebrate!

“You know, Mom, you can try out again,” Marija piped up.

“Please!” Courtney added.

That decided it. The next year I worked even harder and made it to the finals again. A few days later I was interviewed on a radio show, along with two other girls who’d tried out. The director of the Ben-Gals walked in.

“You ladies are going to find out if you’ve made the squad, right here on the air!” she said, handing us each an envelope.

I flashed back to the “Making of a Ben-Gal” program. I couldn’t be rejected in front of the whole city again, could I?

“Why don’t you open yours first, Laura?” the host asked.

I pulled out the letter. There were words all over the page, but I only saw one: “Congratulations!” I bawled.

This year I’ll turn 44. I’m still the oldest cheerleader in the NFL. Other than “Mom” it’s the title I’m most proud of. Each time I grab those orange-and-black pom-poms, I’m reminded that it’s never too late to chase your dreams. Just have faith, and remember: Go! Fight! Win!

Watch as Laura shares more Ben-Gal inspiration!

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