In January, Netflix’s hit documentary series Cheer introduced us to the Navarro College cheerleading team, an elite squad of athletes that, despite a lack of name recognition among viewers who weren’t already intimately familiar with the college cheerleading scene, dominated its sport. The series takes viewers through one season on the team, the majority of which is dedicated to preparing for a single competition, referred to in the show as “Daytona”—shorthand for the National Cheerleaders Association’s Collegiate National Championship, which takes place each spring in Daytona, Florida.
Navarro, we’re told, has won 13 national championships and five grand national championships. (The show is somewhat vague about exactly what “grand national championships” are—the team that has the highest score in the whole competition, not just its division, wins the grand championship.) As one talking head puts it toward the beginning of the series, “Navarro, they are the best of the best of the best.” Monica Aldama, the team’s coach, says at one point in the show’s first episode, “My goal was to be the best cheer program in the country. I did that,” before going on to say that the standard gets higher every year. Suffice it to say, the documentary wants you to know that these cheerleaders, they’re really, really good.
It was curious, then, in the weeks following the series’ release, that some chatter started to circulate online that when Navarro competed in Daytona, it wasn’t the fierce competition the show made it out to be. In fact, it seems to have only faced one other school, Trinity Valley. Could it be? Viewers of Cheer will be familiar with the formidable cheerleaders of Trinity Valley, who also appear in the documentary, but they’re painted as Navarro’s archrivals, not its only rivals. It just didn’t make sense that the team could go through everything it did—months of practice, injuries, tears—to only face one other team. Then again, the rumors online were fuzzy and confusing, especially to cheer-world novices, which was most of us. I decided to seek out some answers.
So is it true? Are Navarro and Trinity Valley each other’s only rivals? At least in terms of the championship the show depicted, yes. In the final episode (spoiler), when Navarro wins the competition the team has been preparing for all season—this was Daytona 2019—the team really is competing in a two-team division, Advanced Large Coed, that consists of Navarro and Trinity Valley. A representative from Varsity, the company that owns the National Cheerleaders Association, confirmed to Slate via email, “Only the two teams have chosen to enter the Advanced Large Coed division.” She noted that the Collegiate National Championship features 200 teams in more than 25 divisions, including many junior college teams, but the division portrayed in Cheer is a division of two.
So yes: It was just the two of them. They had a 50/50 shot at winning. But it’s also more complicated than that, Navarro and its fans would argue.
Reached by phone, Aldama, Navarro’s coach, told me that the reason Navarro is competing in such a small division is that other schools don’t want to go up against it and Trinity Valley. “We’re two of the best teams out there,” she said. “It doesn’t matter that we’re in a junior college division. Nobody wants to compete against us.”
Aldama said that Navarro’s division in the competition has evolved over time: When she first began coaching 25 years ago, the division was quite large, but various NCA decisions have made it smaller over the years. One of those was the splitting of the junior college category into “advanced” and “intermediate” levels. “Many years ago, they created what’s called an intermediate division, which basically means you’re restricted on the skills you can do, so it’s really good for teams that just don’t have the skills to compete with us, what we do,” Aldama said. “I think the reason they did that is people were trying things that they really had no business doing, trying to do these harder skills to compete, but they didn’t have necessarily the talent to do it. Anyways, it opened up these intermediate divisions, so teams started dropping down to these intermediate divisions. Our division kept shrinking and shrinking.”
The Varsity representative confirmed that Navarro’s division used to be bigger and that teams choose which division to compete in, including intermediate divisions that “have skill restrictions that they cannot exceed.” But Varsity wouldn’t confirm that other teams dropped down to less advanced divisions specifically to avoid competing with Navarro and TVCC. “We do not have firsthand knowledge of the decision-making process for these teams,” the representative wrote. Varsity declined to answer whether there are any other two-school-only divisions.
Aldama said she gets how it might look but that the two-team division is better understood in context. “People would say, ‘Who all did y’all compete against?’ ‘Well, Trinity Valley.’ They don’t understand because they are not in the cheer world.”
She added, “I’ve seen some of that chatter on social media too, ‘You only competed against one team.’ Well, I get that, but we can’t make people compete against us.” Aldama compared the situation to college football: She said that if other teams refused to compete against Alabama and Louisiana State, that wouldn’t make the eventual face-off between the two of them any less competitive. “If nobody wants to play Alabama, nobody wants to play LSU, and at the end of the day they play each other, they’re still two of the best teams,” Aldama said.
Ashley Lane, the cheerleading coach at Louisburg College in North Carolina, a school Navarro has competed against in the past, backed up Aldama’s account: “The junior college division used to be larger, but I understand completely why some colleges would prefer to compete in a different division instead of competing directly against Navarro and TVCC due to their past success,” she wrote via email. Several more former Navarro competitors did not reply to my requests for comment.
DJ, the creator of Cheer Updates, an online source of cheerleading news, further supported this. (He prefers not to go by his full name online.) He told me that Navarro, despite its relatively small size and enrollment compared with other college cheerleading powerhouses, does the same high-level skills that schools in larger divisions do: “Whether they do it or the University of Louisville does it, the skill in itself is the most difficult thing you can do. They are doing it,” he said. “It’s massively impressive.”
Lane thinks Cheer did a good job of representing Navarro’s place in the cheerleading world. “I do believe Navarro is an outstanding team and program,” she said.
Still, Aldama said she would welcome the chance to compete in a larger division: “NCA did combine us with another division a few years ago, which I thought was a great idea, and I would still be completely fine with that.” As for why the NCA doesn’t force the matter, she said, “It’s a business for them, so they’re making decisions based, I guess, on what they feel like is best for their business.” That business would be Varsity Brands, the aforementioned company that has faced criticism for what some say is a monopolistic hold on cheerleading.
“It’s always been important for us to try our best to get the highest score—to get the highest score that we can,” Aldama said. “So at the end of the day, if we have the highest score, we can say, ‘Look, we beat every team there.’ ”
This is where that designation “grand national champions” comes in: It goes to the team with the highest score in the competition, and it’s a point of pride for Navarro that the team has taken it five times in the past decade. Cheer didn’t go out of its way to mention that Navarro did not win the grand national champion title in 2019. It won its division—the division that’s just Navarro and TVCC—but came in second in the overall competition, to grand national champions Texas Tech. The Navarro team still got its trophy, still got to run into the ocean at Daytona—a post-win tradition—and they got a triumphant ending for the documentary series. But whether they’re the “best of the best of the best”? Debatable.