"The triumph can't be had without the struggle," --Olympic gold medalist Wilma Rudolph
Former State University of West Georgia cheerleader Mandy Sterling Hill remembers the trip starting like any other.
In the very early morning hours of Aug. 10, 1997, members of the university's 15-strong coed squad - bleary-eyed and half-awake - tightly packed themselves and their luggage into two 15-passenger vans. Many fell asleep against the hard glass of windows or the shoulders of teammates as they traveled through the pre-dawn darkness on a six-and-a-half-hour journey to Myrtle Beach, S.C.
There, they would work as a team, running through well-rehearsed routines and working to bring a national title home to Carrollton, Ga. from the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) Division II championship.
Together, they would achieve. But they had no idea of how the long and difficult struggle - or the eventual, inspirational triumph - that lie in the miles and years ahead would shape them as teammates and people.
From routine to tragedy
Sterling settled into one of the bench van seats, ready for the trip. Poking her head in the side door, a friend asked Sterling to switch vehicles so the two could ride together. Thinking nothing of it, Sterling moved to the other, less crowded vehicle. Soon, the group hit the road, with her van leading.
"It just felt like a normal 'Here we go. We're on a trip,'" Sterling recalled in a new video produced by Xiaojuan Christian, a senior visual services specialist at the now University of West Georgia. The video marks the event's 20th anniversary.
Meanwhile, because he was prone to car sickness, Mike Jones asked for the front passenger seat in the second van, where most of the team rode.
"I had already gotten in the front seat. Everyone was piling in," he said. "Deandre (Hamilton) came up to me and he was like 'Look man, I get really car sick. Can we swap seats?' I was like, 'Man!'"
Though he knew it could mean a bout with nausea, Jones agreed. It's a decision he'll remember forever.
As most of them slept, the cheerleaders' normal trip suddenly turned to a nightmare along a stretch of I-20 almost midway between Atlanta and Augusta, Ga. According to a Georgia State Patrol sergeant, a front tire on the second van blew, sending the vehicle tumbling several times. All passengers were ejected before the van came to rest in a mass of twisted metal and broken glass.
"Most of us had fallen asleep because of the nature of the hour we started the trip," said Chad Houck. "I just remember waking up to a big bang."
The bang came as a radio call for Wilkes County Emergency Management Services Director Blake Thompson, who arrived on the scene soon after the crash. He vividly recalls having to calm an EMT as they drove to the site.
"I can hear her now," he said. "She said, 'I just hope it's not kids.’
"I told her to keep her head, stay calm, 'We're going to be alright," Thompson remembered, his voice cracking and eyes welling with tears despite the time that has passed. "I can remember the wreck like it was yesterday. Two of my medics who were involved never worked for me again."
Those in the lead van watched in horror after their driver screamed as he saw the crash in his rearview mirror.
"A lot of us turned around in the van and saw it flipping," dance team member Shannon Williams Walsingham, who rode in the passenger seat of the first van, told a news crews after the crash. "It was horrible."
Driver and cheerleading coach Stephanie Suzanne Shaw, 27, of Carrollton, was killed instantly. Hamilton, 20, of Snellville, Ga., died later that day at the Medical College of Georgia Hospital. Houck's best friend and roommate, Michael Massa, 18, of Rex, Ga., succumbed to injuries two weeks later. The remaining injured passengers were hospitalized in serious and fair conditions, many spending weeks under the care of doctors.
Then came the crushing news that their coach had not survived.
"She was just a student," former cheerleader Kim Test recalled in the video. "She would hang out with us. It was a fun time to go to practice. We joked and laughed.
"We stayed in the same hotel rooms," Test added. "She was more of a big sister, I guess, than a coach."
Suffering - and rebuilding - together
Through tears and tightly held hands, the remaining team members held closely together, trying to make sense of what had happened. They recounted the crash, reminisced about their fallen friends and nursed each other through the physical and mental anguish.
Later conversations often focused on what was to come next. Dare they try to come together as a team and carry on?
"I had a lot of doubt after that happened - why it happened, why I wasn't on the van, why did I get on the van, why did I get off the van, why, why it happened in general," Hill recalled. "It would have been easy for me to walk away because I was emotionally and mentally strained. I suffered from PTSD for a long time."
Those feelings quickly dissipated for Hill and others. Fate sent them a new motivation in the discipline and compassion of new coach Sherry Cooney.
"She was a hard coach. She didn't take any excuses," squad member Chris Autrey said.
"She was like 'Alright, if we do it, it's going to be tough,'" Jones recalled. "'It's not a joke. I don't take it lightly.'"
Understanding that the comeback process would be long and difficult, Cooney allowed the team space to hurt and heal. Getting back in the game was key to that process.
"She balanced that with pushing us, driving us to want to get better - to want to get back to where we were," Autrey said. "She pushed us, drove us, to get back into shape and to get back to normalcy."
The road to recovery - and greatness
Slowly, the team regained ground, training and rebuilding over the next two seasons. The road to recovery reached the UCA Division II National Championship Tournament in 2000, where UWG placed fifth.
"We were just happy to be there," Houck said, "because when we first came back from the wreck, out of this large team, there was a bunch of us who couldn't even walk for six months to a year."
After broken backs, shoulder injuries and head trauma, the return to competitive prominence was nothing short of miraculous. The team certainly caught the attention of cheerleading fans and teams across the country.
"To see the fight in them to come back was just amazing," Hill recalled of her injured teammates. "I didn't want to let them down. They never let me down. That's for sure."
The team turned heads again the next year, winning third at the tournament. As momentum began to build, West Georgia's cheer team cemented its resolve to become the country's best and win the university's first national title.
The stage was set in in Orlando, Fla. for the 2002 championship. West Georgia dominated the competition in a video preliminary contest to claim the top seed for the national tournament. For their efforts, the cheerleaders received a bid to skip the semifinals and head straight to the finals.
Then came time to hit the big stage. In the moment, tingling nerves gave way to steeled resolve. A short 2 minutes and 20 seconds later, UWG's cheerleaders knew they had given the performance of their lives. The judges agreed.
Team by team, the announcer named the final ranking, starting with the eighth-place finisher. As the champions were about to be revealed, UWG's squad held hands and listened intently with eyes closed.
The words of "The State University of West Georgia" rang from the PA system and filled the room, sending the team into a frenzy.
"It was surreal being in the floor knowing that, just four years earlier, most of us were in a hospital bed, not knowing if we would be able to do this again," Autry said.
Leaving a powerful legacy
They indeed did it again. After losing so much on that rural stretch of Georgia interstate, members of West Georgia's cheerleading team taught themselves and countless others a lesson about resilience.
Much more than that, they created a dominating tradition of winning that continues today. In January, West Georgia won its 20th and 21st national cheerleading titles in coed and all-girl competitions. It was the 12th coed title in 18 years.
Today, those who started the dynasty take pride in today's cheerleaders who carry on the tradition. Hill says her family crowds around the television to watch the championship.
"It's amazing to see the guys and girls fight so hard for the championship. It makes me proud," she said with a smile. "It will forever be part of my life."
The wreck has a been bittersweet and life-changing event for the former cheerleaders from West Georgia. With the healing power of time, they now speak of the accident's positive effects on their lives.
"I got family out of it," Jones said. "I got other family I might not have otherwise. Those folks are near and dear to my heart."
"I will never, ever, ever forget that he swapped seats with me," he said in tribute to his friend, Hamilton. "Because, if he hadn't, we wouldn't be having this interview."
Houck speaks more philosophically about the triumph that has followed his struggle.
"When someone experiences something like that in their life," he said, "they either let it affect them in a negative way or they use it as a motivational point and they build off it and that makes them a better, stronger person."