A Lifetime reality TV show chronicles cheer coaches at a Kentucky high school and Ole Miss. They just happen to be mother and daughter.
Written by Ginny McCarley | Photographs Contributed By A+E Networks LLC
Ryan O’Connor is just about to begin her third year as head coach of the Ole Miss cheer squad, and she has big dreams for her team.
Last year, that drive was caught on camera by a film crew for Lifetime’s new show, “Generation Cheerleader.” The show follows O’Connor and her mother, Donna Martin, a cheer coach for Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, as they each pursue national championships for their respective teams.
This is not the mother-daughter duo’s first time on television. They appeared on an episode of “True Life: I am a Cheerleader,” as well as the 2006 Lifetime series “Cheerleader Nation.” The new show is a follow-up of sorts to the last series, which chronicled O’Connor’s experience as a cheerleader coached by her mom, a driven leader whose teams have earned 16 state titles and eight national championships.
As befits the daughter of an incredibly successful high school cheer coach, O’Connor’s life has revolved around cheerleading. After high school, O’Connor cheered at the University of Alabama where she majored in journalism before becoming editor of American Cheerleader magazine. She quickly realized that she missed the relationships and interaction of being on a team, and she became head coach of cheer at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Though she loved UAB, O’Connor dreamed of coaching a team in the SEC.
“I knew that I wanted to work at a school where people grow up fans from birth,” O’Connor said. “(Coaching at Ole Miss) has been everything I dreamed of and more.”
The show centers on O’Connor’s relationship with her mother as well as her own journey to motherhood. During filming, O’Connor was pregnant with her first child, Michael Thomas O’Connor, now four months old. The show highlights O’Connor and Martin’s similarities but points out things that set them apart as well.
“When my mom was my age I would say we weren’t really different, but I think with age, my mom is softer than I am,” O’Connor said. “I’m still just right out of college, and I can still physically do some of the skills and hop in there. I did cheer at the collegiate level and my mom didn’t, so just knowing how to do these skills, I guess we’re different in that.”
Though the show focuses on O’Connor and Martin, it also chronicles some of the quintessential struggles of a college experience: romantic relationships, grades and insecurities. O’Connor notes that she enjoys being able to watch her own evolution in high school on “Cheerleader Nation.” Giving her students the chance to have a record of such a special time of life was one of the biggest perks of filming the show.
“I’m excited for my athletes to see themselves and have the opportunity to share their platform and their stories,” O’Connor said. “They will have these memories to look back on forever. I’m excited that my athletes will have that experience, and I’m excited for the exposure that Ole Miss cheerleading is getting.”
Casey Giles, a freshman from Columbus, Georgia, is one student featured prominently on the show. In a suspenseful first episode centered on tryouts for the team, Giles gets hurt tumbling and must push through a mental block to finish strong and achieve her dream of being an SEC cheerleader.
“This has been my dream since I was a little girl,” Giles said. “This is what I’ve always wanted, but now it’s actually happening.”
Giles said O’Connor is the best cheer coach she’s ever had. She pushes her hard, not only on the mat but in life as well.
“Coach Ryan wants the best for her kids,” Giles said. “She wants to see us succeed; she wants to see us be the best cheerleaders, students and people we can be. She pushes us inside of practice and outside of practice. I’ve never had a coach that actually really cared about me, wanting me to get these skills. I think she is the kind of coach every college athlete wants to have — she wants you to be better overall and to be a good person.”
Both Giles and O’Connor hope that the show, which features grueling practices and gravity-defying stunt work, will help everyone see how much is behind that squad’s game-day performance.
“We don’t just show up. It takes a lot of time, effort and practice to get where people expect us to be being Ole Miss cheerleaders and where we want to be,” Giles said.
The most frustrating thing about being head coach of a successful SEC cheer squad, for O’Connor, is being told that the sport is “just” cheerleading.
“It’s not ‘just’ cheerleading to my kids,” O’Connor said. “You’ll see (on “Cheerleader Generation”) how passionate they are about their sport. They come from all over to be SEC cheerleaders and cheer for Ole Miss. Our number one job is to support our school at the events, but we’re athletes.”
With nationals behind her, O’Connor is already looking forward to showing the world just what Ole Miss cheerleaders can do next season.
“I want to start more traditions that encourage fans to really get involved in the games,” O’Connor said. “We’re very talented this year, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’m already excited about competitions.”
Ten episodes of “Cheerleader Generation” aired Tuesdays at 9 p.m. CDT beginning June 11 on the Lifetime channel; view past episodes on mylifetime.com.