It’s the role Coach Ryan O’Connor was born to fulfill.
KSR sat down for a one-on-one (virtual!) conversation with Kentucky’s new head cheerleading coach to discuss her cheerleading career, beginning at Lexington’s Paul Laurence Dunbar High School and continuing throughout college and with USA Cheer. Now, she’s coaching the best talent the sport has to offer.
O’Connor is a decorated cheerleader both as an athlete and as a coach, winning high school state and national titles, college national titles, and world championships herself, then leading Ole Miss to their first national title in her first head coaching position.
“It’s more than a sport,” said O’Connor when describing the dedication it takes for Kentucky cheerleaders, pinpointing not only their athletic ability, but the support they provide the university and the example they set forth for the rest of the sport. O’Connor is no stranger to dedication, beginning her cheerleading career with the legendary PLD cheerleaders on the varsity squad in the seventh grade. Yes, she was 12.
That’s not to discredit any athletic ability; O’Connor lovingly describes her athletes as “freaks.”
Kentucky cheer always works toward a new national title at the UCA championships, in cheerleading jargon just called “January,” which is when the competition annually takes place. Preparing for a competition that may or may not happen is challenging for a new coach as years of national titles and the expectation of more loom overhead, all while still dealing with the ramifications of the university’s recent investigation into the program that detailed hazing, alcohol abuse and public nudity. The findings from the investigation meant longtime head coach Jomo Thompson, as well as all four of his former assistant coaches, were promptly fired. The program’s longtime advisor T. Lynn Williamson retired. O’Connor had to start from scratch.
O’Connor also had a tough role deciding on this year’s team, limited to pre-recorded tryout videos that made it harder to judge what she called the “Kentucky mold.” When asked what this mold is, she described an athlete that not only worked hard for themselves and their teammates, but also exceeded their goals. Kentucky is the gold standard of cheerleading, after all.
“There’s those couple of kids when you go to a high school or a competition that just get it,” said O’Connor, “Those are the kids at Kentucky.”
Cinching the coaching job in the industry, in her hometown, for the team she’s always cheered for, O’Connor said the position at Kentucky is like a “fairytale.” And guess what? She’s not worried about the pressure. In fact, she’s not nervous at all.
“Everyone keeps saying they’re excited to get started, but we already started,” O’Connor said.
They started the day O’Connor got the job. In fact, just like O’Connor, they’ve been preparing their whole lives for this. In her hands, these student athletes will be well-prepared for their future at Kentucky and beyond.
Watch our full interview here: