Sunday, May 06, 2007

Racer to Raider: Former cheerleader becomes Oakland Raiderette 

Posted by Sasha at 5:36 PM ET

Tommy Dillard
Murray State News

There are those people to whom life comes easy. They rarely face obstacles and hardly have to break a sweat to get what they want. Then, there are people like Meena Shams.

Shams, a 1997 graduate of Murray State, may be living her dream now as an Oakland Raiderette, but Shams' course in achieving her ambition has been anything but obstacle-free.

As a child, Shams, a native of Bardstown, Ky., attended high school football games with her father. But while most spectators were focused on the action on the gridiron, Shams' attention was firmly focused elsewhere.

"(Cheerleading) has always been a dream since I was a little girl," Shams said. "One of (my dad's) good friends was the cheerleading coach, so I'd sit with her at the games and watch the girls. I looked up to those girls - they were the smartest and prettiest girls in school, and when I decided to quit gymnastics, I knew I wanted to be a cheerleader."

Shams tried out for her high school cheerleading squad as a sophomore, but didn't make the cut.

Instead of giving up, she tried again as a junior and this time earned the right to take her place on the sideline on Friday nights as a member of the group of girls she idolized as a child.

As college approached and Shams decided to follow in her father and brother's footsteps and attend Murray State, she wanted to continue to cheer at a collegiate level.

She tried out to be a Racer cheerleader as a freshman and made the squad as an alternate. Then, in the spring semester of her freshman year, Shams joined the varsity squad.

In 1995, Shams and her fellow Racers qualified for Nationals for the first time in Murray State history. With a trip to Tallahassee, Fla., to cheer on the men's basketball team in the NCAA Tournament also scheduled, the spring of '95 was shaping up to be a season to remember for the cheerleaders, that is until the fateful night on Interstate 24.

The squad was returning from the Nashville airport after the basketball game when their van had a blowout and flipped, killing one of Shams' fellow squad members.

Needless to say, the Racers did not compete at Nationals in 1995 and it wasn't until the next year that Shams became a part of the first Racer squad to ever compete on a national stage.

"We had been trying every year, getting closer and closer and the previous year we had qualified and weren't able to go because of the accident," Shams said.

"Finally getting the chance to go, it just kind of symbolized us overcoming that obstacle as well, not just finally making the nationals, but also overcoming the emotional and physical trauma of being in that accident."

After graduating with a bachelor of science degree in exercise science, Shams moved to California to focus on her career as a personal trainer and decided not to pursue cheerleading professionally.

"I put cheerleading on the back burner," Shams said. "I think that was a good choice, but I realized later that I missed that and I felt like there was something missing. I met my husband here and I wanted him to see that side of me. He respected what I did (in college and high school), but he didn't really know what it was about."

So Shams decided to give professional cheerleading a shot. She worked one season with the San Jose Stealth of the National Lacrosse League and then decided to shoot for the stars, trying out with the Oakland Raiders.

She joined more than 500 other women in trying out to be a representative of one of the most well-recognized pro sports franchises in America - and didn't make it.

Instead of giving up, she decided to try a second time. But again, Shams wasn't accepted as a Raiderette.

Never one to quit, Shams went back for a third try in the spring of 2006. And this time, she made it.

"On that third audition, I was thinking 'What if this never happens?' and I just couldn't imagine it not happening," she said. "… I guess that's the story of my life; keep trying and trying and you'll eventually get there."

Shams cheered on the sidelines of McAfee Coliseum as a Raiderette last football season and after recently trying out and making the squad for a second season, Shams is ready for fall and the chance to cheer again.

"Trying out for my second year was even more nervewracking than last year as a rookie," she said. "You have relationships with people and you don't want to give that up. There's no special consideration really given to the veterans. Every year there's people that don't make it back. You're really just holding on to what you love."

Cheering on the sidelines isn't all the Raiderettes do. Shams attends several charitable and fundraising events, as well as corporate sponsor events each year. Raiderettes are also expected to be positive role models to the community, as well as skilled performers.

And anyone looking for a role model of perseverance, patience and overcoming obstacles need look no farther than Shams.

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