As Megan Klimkos stood in the tunnel at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii, the crowd noise echoing, she realized her dream was coming true. All those years of dance practice at Springfield's Rhythm and Cheer studios were paying off at halftime during the National Football League's Pro Bowl.
"When we were waiting in the tunnel, it was really exciting. That's why we do these things," she said.
"These things" meant years of practice, competitions with other dance studios, and going one-on-one with the judges in front of a gym full of people.
At the Pro Bowl, Megan was with 450 other dancers, all facing the same fears, waiting on the sideline late in the second quarter. Halftime show organizers divided the dancers into groups and named the groups after football teams.
"We did three numbers," she said. "We were the Oakland Raiders." Two other girls also chosen as "All Americans" from Rhythm & Cheer were Katherine Cestare, a junior at Centreville High School, and Christina Ford from St. Agnes in Alexandria. The Rhythm & Cheer girls, with mothers in tow, spent the whole week together.
Sheryl Olechek, dance instructor and Rhythm & Cheer studio owner, accompanied the girls on the trip as well. It was her seventh pro bowl, dating back to 1979, when she was a student at West Springfield High School.
"That's what made it special. Megan and I have that in common," she said.
One of the dancers, Patricia Robinson, who was a former Rhythm & Cheer student, won a $5,000 scholarship at Hawaii.
Rick Klimkos, Megan's father, remembered when she was a 5-year-old in a pink tutu with a lace veil.
"I was kind of shocked. You never think that your kid's going to do something like that. It's been a lot of hard work for her," he said.
MEGAN, a junior at West Springfield High School, went the dance route instead of cheerleading. There were cheerleaders at the Pro Bowl, but not Megan.
"Cheer is very different than dance," she said.
After winning in a competition in Myrtle Beach, S.C., last March, she knew she was heading for Hawaii.
"We got nominated at that time," she said.
After an 11-month wait, the group departed for Hawaii on Super Bowl Sunday and spent a week touring and practicing. She traveled around the island with her Rhythm & Cheer troupe, trying to hit the beach as much as possible. Megan used the sightseeing as an opportunity to practice her other hobby — photography. She takes Photo II at West Springfield.
"We rented a car and drove all over the island. It was exciting for me to get all the pictures," she said.
At a restaurant, the girls met some Kansas City Chief players and Chris Judd, one of the celebrities in the show.
TAKING DANCE at Rhythm & Cheer studios isn't just a matter of pay-as-you-go. The dancers have to maintain a 3.0 grade point average. Megan currently has a 3.7 GPA. Her father compared it to sports, where athletes don't have to maintain grades.
"That's the other thing I like about Rhythm & Cheer. This shows school's important," he said.
Before the dance studio, Olechek was the cheerleading coach at Lee High School and a "Redskinette," a Washington Redskin cheerleader.
"They're very well-rounded young people," Olechek said.
Ballet is Megan's specialty, but she does jazz, tap and lyrical dancing as well. Other area dance studios the dancers compete against include Dance Sensations, Dance Explosions, Degrase and Studio One. Klimkos sees the progress in Megan.
"I've seen the focus. It's very important to stay focused. This helps her concentrate," he said.
Megan practices about 20 hours a week and is a lifeguard during the summer, so she doesn't have much time for anything else. She doesn't miss it, though.
"It helps you learn time-management skills. It keeps you busy so you're not just sitting at home watching TV," she said.
Megan saved some money last summer and financed half the trip, and her parents picked up the rest of the bill. Although she missed a week of school in Hawaii, the teachers gave her work to take along so she wouldn't get behind.