NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BVM) — During her junior year of high school, Lindsey Wheeley received a brochure in the mail about summer college prep cheer clinics. This included a clinic at the University of Alabama, which was only a few hours from her hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. Not knowing very much about the college, she attended the clinic and caught the attention of the head coach. After two recruiting trips, Wheeley fell in love with the campus and made the cheerleading team in 1998. Though she also cheered for basketball, volleyball and gymnastics, Wheeley’s best memories happened on the football field.
“In all my years of cheerleading there was never a moment that could top the feeling of being on the football field in that uniform on gameday,” Wheeley said.
After graduating from the university with a degree in advertising, Wheeley’s first job took her to Nashville, Tenn. to the Country Music Hall of Fame. A few short months later, she was visiting the campus of a local college to interview for a part-time coaching position. In May 2003, Wheeley became head coach of the Belmont University cheer squad.
During her first year of coaching, only five people showed up for tryouts. After competing with over 500 girls at cheer tryouts for a Division I school, this was quite an adjustment for Wheeley. She spent seasons collaborating with the band director to start traditional crowd leading band chants, which were not previously part of the school spirit. Wheeley has attended eight NCAA tournaments with men’s basketball and five with women’s basketball.
She continued to grow the program and recruit talent until the cheerleaders were ready to compete in the Large Coed Division I at the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA) Nationals in Orlando, Fla. Ever since, the Bruins have always placed in the top ten ranking.
“In 2016, we received 4th place, which was my proudest moment as a coach, knowing how much we had to grow as a program to get to that point,” Wheeley said.
As much as she enjoys the game and competition experiences, what Wheeley values most are the relationships she has built with her cheerleaders. She recently attended the wedding of two former cheerleaders, and they were the third pair of stunt partners to marry during her coaching career.
In 2015, Wheeley was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS). Her first MS episode left her with some permanent damage the doctors called a 2cm “black hole” in the language center of her brain. She woke one day to find she temporarily struggled to read and write as well as calculate basic math. She has been through various treatments over the years and currently her condition is not very noticeable to others. However, Wheeley spends time proofreading emails and text several times for errors, and often has her husband check for errors before sending. In her case, they are not careless errors, but rather a symptom of her condition.
Wheeley has been coaching the Bruins for 18 years and that has included some very long days and weeks. For most of that time, she was working at a healthcare company by day and coaching games and practices on nights and weekends.
The toll that MS has taken on her health has made those long days uncomfortable and exhausting at times, but Wheeley has pushed through it.
“I expect my cheerleaders to give me 100% at all times and they deserve the same from me in return,” Wheeley said.
In 2019 when she had a baby, Wheeley and her husband decided it was time for her to resign from her full-time position as a senior marketing manager. Her condition requires her to get adequate sleep and nutrition to function well. The change has allowed her to have more time to devote to her team as well as her own “squad” at home.
“If I wake up feeling normal, it’s a good day!” Wheeley said. “There are a lot of days I haven’t felt well or could hardly get out of bed. I never take a ‘normal day’ for granted.”
For others battling MS, Wheeley advises finding a good neurologist as well as a friend, support group or social media connection with others who understand the condition. Learning from others and sharing her knowledge helps her cope on her journey and gives her strength and confidence to advocate for her needs in therapeutic situations.
MS is not the only challenge Wheeley has had to overcome. She lost her dad when she was 25 and her mom five years later, both to cancer. Coaching helps her honor their memory because she sees a bit of their legacy shining through her. She resembles her mom in the way she worries and cares for each cheerleader and learned her leadership skills from watching her dad. Coaching helps Wheeley focus and have strength to manage the pain of her condition and the losses. She takes her own advice after telling her cheerleaders to leave every other distraction behind when they step onto the court or mat.
“Whether it’s mentoring a team member, hitting a new pyramid, or perfecting new traditions to showcase on gameday in The Curb (arena), it’s my time to do what I love with the people I love – The Belmont cheer family,” Wheeley said.
Wheeley has no plans to slow down as a coach and has already begun preparing her cheerleaders for a spirited basketball season and a fierce nationals competition in 2021.