It’s been difficult for me to write this blog entry. Not because I don’t have anything to say, but how do you do justice to a sport that meant so much to Ashley and was so much a part of my life the last 14 years (25 years for Ashley) in one blog entry.
This post was 3452 words so I edited it down, which become 5551 words before I edited it again. This blog is still too long but you can judge for yourself.
Thursday 1/24 was five weeks since Ashley passed away. I went to the cemetery to visit with her. This was the first time I had gone alone. I expected to be sad, but I wasn’t. It was very peaceful and I had good talk with her. Among other things, I shared with her how proud I was of her and told her that later that night I would go see her team be honored for winning her 4th State Championship (first co-ed).
The Gwinnett County School Board recognizes many accomplishments of its students, teachers, principals, schools and staff throughout the year. It also makes it a point to recognize their sports teams for winning State. I was happy to be there with DotDot to watch Ashley and Katie’s team receive this honor. It was well deserved and Katie let the board know how important Ashley was to her cheer team, her school, and the cheer community.
Sitting there waiting through all of the other recognitions, I reflected back to January 24, 2005…
Back then, I would have never imagined this moment. Ashley’s death, Ashley’s state championships, Ashley being the mother of my children, Ashley and I being married, Ashley and I dating, me staying in Georgia…
January 2005, Ashley’s priority was her cheerleaders.
Ashley and I had recently broken up (because I am a moron… we were still close friends though) and I began my exit plan from Georgia. I had even applied to two jobs in Illinois. One of which I had later been offered in June shortly after accepting a teaching position at Mill Creek.
Ashley has been quoted as saying “Mike wasn’t into the cheerleader type of girl, but then I tricked him into marrying me.”
I’m sure Ashley has “tricked” me into some things. (Like why she needs so many purses and bags… who needs three different yoga bags?) Marrying her, was not one of them…
Honestly, I don’t know why she picked me to be a boyfriend. Maybe it was the challenge. On paper, I wasn’t her type. I didn’t like cheerleading, wasn’t good with large groups (or arenas full of people) wasn’t planning to stay in Georgia, didn’t have a college football team (Bears fan) didn’t like cats, didn’t like her pointy shoes that she used to wear, didn’t like grits, drank Pepsi, and ultimately wanted to settle back in Chicago. (How we became a couple is its own Romantic Comedy and I should look into developing it as a screenplay)
When I met Ashley, I was not a huge fan of competition cheerleading. Having covered cheerleading as an athletic trainer prior to coming to Mill Creek, I was annoyed by the drama, the subjective-ness of it, the injuries, the crazy cheer parents, and did I mention the drama?
In 2004, I would say that cheerleading was my least favorite sport to cover… A friend reminded me recently that I once said something along the lines “that competition cheerleading is definitely a sport. But it is a stupid sport… (okay I know that a good majority of my audience is somehow related to the cheer world, as I took over Ashley’s blog. But bear with me. In that same conversation, I also said “I do not date cheerleaders.” And we all know how that turned out.)
–Ashley memory: Ashley often remarked that I don’t have much of a Chicago accent, unless I actually say the word Chicago (“Chicaaahgo or Chi-caw-go,” depending on how fast I’m talking) and the words: bear, bare, or beer. Apparently, I pronounce them all the same (beer, which is incorrect) with a Chicago accent. It’s probably not even a Chicago accent but for some reason it would annoy Ashley that I pronounced them all the same. Then I would remark that I would like to “bear with her, beer with her and bare with her”.
Because I pronounced them all the same she did not get my joke. Then I spelled out each one and she still did not get it. Then I explained my joke. (Must not be a good joke) Ashley rolled her eyes and said “with jokes like that, no one’s gonna ‘be bare’ with you”. –
My attitude toward cheerleading is an allegory for me and Ashley’s relationship. Where we started and what we became are two different ends of the spectrum. Same as my attitude about competition cheerleading.
When Ashley and I started dating, I never went to a cheer competition. I did not ever see her team compete that first year.
I did work her home competition and that probably reaffirmed my disdain for the sport.
Don’t get me wrong I always appreciated the athleticism and the effort but the drama was just crazy.
My first ‘true’ cheer experience was at the Mill Creek Competition.
First off. The 2000+ gym is packed, standing room only. I am running around like a crazy person because I am the only athletic trainer at the school at the time. I’m taping seemingly ever girl because there is a rule that all wrists need to be taped (there’s not but it must look cool or something because so many “needed” their wrists taped). I’m getting called to one of the 10 warm-up areas because some girl got a bloody nose. (I really didn’t mind going to warm-ups because that’s where Ashley always worked, so I’d get to see her). Running to go get ice because everyone needs ice after dropping a stunt to show that the injury caused them to falter…
Then the actual competition. After a two-and-a-half-minute routine the 1st team comes off the mat. Girls are crying, one girl is limping, another girl has to be carried off the mat.
I rush over to see if I can help with these apparent injuries even though they just performed without incident. All girls are fine just need some ice, water, and reassurance from their teammates.
Then a few routines later, same thing but this time as a girl leaves the gym she rips her top off (to her sports bra, but still) gasping for air saying she can’t breathe. The coach is calling for a trainer or doctor. We go over there and she is hyperventilating. Trying to get her calmed down and then I hear her mom. “I need an outlet, she needs her breathing treatment!” Her mom plugs in a nebulizer and then drags her daughter over to it and proceeds to give her a breathing treatment. Now don’t get me wrong, nebulizers can be used for rescue treatments but it’s not the most effective method and watching the girl, she is holding the mouth piece next to her face the whole time, so essentially all of the medicine is going into the air or on her cheek.
While standing at the ready, several more routines are going on. Breathing treatments take like 15 minutes so I ask the mom if she needs anything and let her know I’ll come back.
Then the next team comes off. Another two girls being carried off the mat. At this point I really have not seen much cheerleading. One of the girls being carried collapses on the floor. Before I get to her, her mom comes running by, waving honey sticks. “She’s hypoglycemic, she needs her honey.” I ask the mom if her daughter is diabetic. “No, she is hypoglycemic and needs 2-3 honey sticks”. (If you don’t know what a honey stick is, it’s honey in a sealed straw and a convenient honey delivery system.)
Sure enough, girl gets her honey stick and is good to go.
Things continue like this all day. Then awards. Yay, I’m done, nope. Intermission. The second session will be starting shortly.
I go get something to eat in the hospitality room. I walk in there and it is a feast. Best hospitality for any sport, ever. I could go on for three paragraphs about the food.
Helping out in the hospitality room is Barb, Ashley’s first cheer mom. She is offering me more food on my already filled plate and talking to me about Ashley and how I should ask her out.
Ashley and I had just started dating, but not really serious and not really public, especially at the school. I’m sure my face is getting red and then Ashley walks in with her entourage and makes fun of all the food on my plate and my cargo shorts and comments about what I have in all those pockets.
Now my face is bright red, so I head out but not before Ashley says “make sure you watch Peachtree Ridge, they are really good!”
The next session goes about the same. But I do get to see Peachtree Ridge perform. And they are good, really good. (This would be foreshadowing on Ashley’s part, the next 5-6 years Peachtree Ridge would be Ashley’s biggest rival in our Region when they were in the same division)
After the competition, I go to say bye to Ashley (but not super obvious that I’m saying bye to her specifically).
She has to “clean-up” which is just socialize for the next two hours. Ashley is not known for her cleaning capabilities.
So, after saying bye… an hour later I leave.
Ashley had asked me to move drinks from the concession stand and hospitality to Coach Petty’s room and then help clean up other stuff and take food to such and such.
Sure, that’s what every athletic trainer does after working all day…move drinks and food and clean-up.
In hindsight, it was pretty obvious I was into Ashley. But that is a “whole-nother” blog.
I called Ashley later and told her about my day’s experience and she simply said “my girls don’t do that; my parents don’t do that.”
And she was right. In 14 years, I’ve never seen one of Coach Baker’s or Coach Taube’s teams act like that. I never saw her parents act like that. And what I realized is that I didn’t have a disdain for cheerleading, it was for parents and coaches that allowed teenagers to dictate the culture of their team. I had seen this pattern in all sports but my familiarity with good teams and bad teams in sports like football, basketball, hockey, cross country, softball, etc. allowed me to see that it wasn’t the sport that was flawed, it was the culture of the individual teams. With cheerleading I hadn’t had enough experience with the sport and these flawed teams left a bad impression on me.
What is team culture? I believe team culture = philosophy of the coach + organizational climate + interpersonal relationships + team’s purpose. Although team culture does not always result in winning, it does result in getting the most out of your team and developing the whole athlete.
Dating Ashley allowed me to appreciate her sport and her coaching capabilities and the culture she built at Mill Creek. I went to her competitions, worked with her cheerleaders, met their parents and saw firsthand the culture that Ashley and Coach Petty had created for Mill Creek’s original CheerHawks program that, aided by Coach Garner and then Coach Fowler, continues to this day. (Both of which Ashley mentored and now lead their own programs, Hayley at North and Katie taking over for Ashley.)
Ashley and the cheer parents coached me up on the sport. I would learn the intricacies of the sport and how you can prepare for a sport all season that is essentially, a 1-shot deal. I learned how much effort Ashley put into her sport. Her athletes showed me how hard they worked, how much they respected Ashley and how they would do anything to keep from letting her down. Ashley held her teams and their parents to a higher standard.
I’ve been around a lot of high caliber coaches but not many like my wife.
I don’t think Ashley ever appreciated how much of impact she had on the sport of competition cheerleading in Georgia and elsewhere. The culture she created for Mill Creek when outside our school. Ashley found great mentors and great teams for examples to develop her philosophy, her culture.
As I continued to cover Mill Creek cheer competitions over the past 14 years, there was less drama, less nebulizers, and less honey sticks. Teams started to emulate Mill Creek, coaches started to emulate Ashley. The opposition knew that Mill Creek was the standard of how a team should act when they compete.
Look at the top teams in the state. You can see in their routines, the way they carry themselves, the way their parents act. Those coaches have been influenced by Ashley in some way.
Talk about a different version of me when we first met. This new version of me would do anything for Ashley to continue coaching her sport. This went from her job, her passion to her ministry. That’s how Ashley used her God given talents to help the world. Being a cheerleader, being a coach, being a mentor… That was her ministry… showing others how to get the most out of life. Ashley may not have seen it that way, but I did and so did many others. Ministry requires your entire being; mind, body, and spirit. And that was Ashley. Through this ministry, she made teenagers better people, parents better supporters, coaches better mentors, and me a better husband, father, teacher, and caregiver.
When Ashley won GCCA coach of the year, she told me that she probably received some pity votes for going into cardiac arrest. I responded that “Your medical issues may have just made more people aware of your accomplishments but you are the best coach in the state in my opinion and obviously, others.”
This is what I wrote about her on Facebook at the time:
Feeling proud for Ashley Baker Taube in being named the 2017 GCCA Coach of the year. I am so appreciative to my wife’s colleagues and peers for recognizing her and all that she does for her athletes and her sport. Ashley has dedicated many years to enriching the lives of her girls and now boys in the sport of Competition Cheerleading. On the mat, she exemplifies being a role model and leader for these athletes. Her teams are taught teamwork, sportsmanship, respect, and accountability. Off the mat, Ashley inspires others daily through her infectious personality and positive attitude through her many adversities.
“A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.” -Proverbs 17:22.
Coaching is Ashley’s calling and I am humbled by how many lives she has impacted. She has sacrificed a lot for her athletes… Wins and losses, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
And neither would I.