By Polly Keary, Editor
When Jessica Irwin first tried out to be a cheerleader, she did it as a gag.
She wasn’t the cheerleader type, she said. She was more the mosh-pit type, wearing the fan shirts of her favorite bands to school, and she considered herself a nerd.
But not only did the Monroe girl make the team, she cheered her way to a position with the Sea Gals. Two weeks ago she cheered at the Super Bowl, then rode in the victory parade that drew 700,000 to downtown Seattle.
It’s been a wild ride, but for the next few weeks she’s taking some time off at home in Monroe. Friday, Irwin took an hour to sit down and talk about all the last few years have brought.
Becoming a Sea Gal
When Irwin tried out for the Bearcats cheer team as a high school student, she did have one advantage. Despite the fact that her musical tastes ran to hard rock, she had been studying at Sky Valley Dance since she was six.
“My mom just knew,” said Irwin, a friendly and articulate young woman who still seemed a little overwhelmed by all that has happened this football season.
By the time she was 15, she was a dance instructor.
And while she hadn’t taken cheer seriously at first, after doing it for a while, she realized she not only was good at it, she really liked it.
After graduating in 2008, Irwin went to the prestigious Cornish School of the Arts, where she studied dance and art.
Then, in 2010, she tried out for the Sea Gals.
The Sea Gals are believed to be one of the most intensely-trained squads in the NFL, and the audition process to get in certainly suggests it might be true.
“It’s a two-week process,” said Irwin. “It starts with preliminaries, and you turn on whatever music and dance freestyle.”
Of about 250 women, about half are invited to the semi-finals, where they are taught the steps to a dance.
“You come in the next day with it perfected,” she said. “You do it again, and they make the final cut.”
All that week, finalists are interviewed, and then the Friday before the finals, the cheerleaders are taught another dance, plus a kick-line routine, and expected to perfect them, as well as be ready to perform a solo.
“When you go to finals, there are 60 people left, and two at a time, you go up in front of the big lights and you answer a question and do your dance,” said Irwin.
Of the finalists, 33 are selected for the team. Irwin was one of them.
That was in April of 2010. When she learned she’d made the squad, Irwin’s life took a dramatic turn.
Being a Sea Gal
Football season is only four months long; five if the team makes the postseason, but Sea Gals, Irwin learned, train nearly all year long.
“We make the team in April, and then train and train and train,” said Irwin. “We only have two months off.”
Sea Gals only perform at home games, of which there are 10 in the regular season and as many as 13 if the team goes to the playoffs.
But there’s a lot more to being a Sea Gal than performing at games.
Some Sea Gals appear in parades, perform for the military at home and overseas, and participate in NFL cheer events.
They wind up doing radio and television appearances too.
It doesn’t pay a lot, said Irwin, but it comes with some great perks.
“We have sponsorships for hair and nails and tanning,” she said. “And we get season tickets.”
And even though there are rules preventing Sea Gals from fraternizing with Seahawks, they do get to meet the players once in a while.
“I got to go to Vancouver with Richard Sherman, Red Bryant and Doug Baldwin,” Irwin said. “They are just really great guys.”
She allowed that some of the players aren’t always quite as concerned about the anti-fraternization rules as are the cheerleaders.
“Sometimes we have to say, ‘Hey, I really like my job,’” she said with a smile.
It is a very fun job, she went on. But when the Seahawks made it to the Super Bowl, things got very exciting very fast.
Irwin was made a team captain last year, one of four cheerleaders to oversee a squad. To get ready for the Super Bowl, she had to learn dances to 30 songs in order to be able to teach them to her squad.
“We were given our music on a Tuesday, and we were leaving that Thursday morning,” said Irwin.
They flew out to New Jersey in a chartered plane, and got up at 4:30 a.m., (1:30 in their own time zone) to make the rounds of talk shows.
Irwin and her team mates appeared on Good Morning America, the Today Show, and Fox and Friends.
Then they headed to the stadium and practiced, where temperatures were very low.
Then it was back to the talk shows, and Irwin was among those who got to go on The Crowd Goes Wild with Regis Philbin.
The following morning they practiced again, then they had few hours off. Irwin also appeared on Fox Sports News.
When the big day arrived, she had a moment in which she was overwhelmed by it all.
“At the Super Bowl I was leading out of our tunnel, and I had a few minutes to look up at the stadium and I’m seeing orange everywhere, and a sea of blue. It was incredibly nerve wracking,” she said. “It was such a big moment. I was realizing, ‘Oh my God, I’m at the Super Bowl.’ And I was trembling on the field. I just couldn’t believe I was there.”
Three days later, the largest crowd ever to convene in Seattle was converging on the downtown, and Irwin and the Sea Gals were riding in the parade that three-quarters of a million people had come to see.
Irwin was riding in one of the Ducks, a fleet of amphibious vehicles that ferry tourists around the city.
On the hood was Marshawn Lynch.
“He was throwing Skittles, and he was drinking Fireball and banging on a drum,” said Jessica, smiling at the memory. “I couldn’t stop staring at all the people. We were getting pelted with frozen Skittles. It hurt, but it was so cool. It turned into a thing, the Skittles. We threw them too.”
It took three hours to get through the parade, and even though it was freezing cold and she couldn’t feel her feet, she loved every minute of it, she said.
After the season
Jessica will get a few weeks to collect her breath before she has to try out for the team again (all team members have to try out every year, but the Sea Gals already on the team get to start in the finals).
And although there are three women on the team who are 37, meaning Jessica could theoretically be a Sea Gal for another 14 seasons, she said she has other things in mind.
One thing that interests her is radio, and that’s because of an unexpected incident at the start of the season this year.
In the opening game of the season, Richard Sherman made a spectacular interception, then ran it back up the field before barreling off into the sidelines. (See video here)
Gleeful, he started dancing with a cheerleader, and video of it went viral. The cheerleader was Irwin.
“I thought it was a funny moment, but it ended up going viral,” she said. “It was on the NFL network, and a few of the local radio stations had me on to laugh and talk about the experience, even though it was three seconds.”
One of the stations, KISS 106.1 FM, liked her and invited her back. Now she is semi-regular on the Jackie and Bender morning show, where on her first day she was tasked with snapping mousetraps onto the fingers of a movie critic as he tried to deliver a movie review. (See video here)
And on Valentine’s Day, she served as a bridesmaid while the hosts married people on the air.
She also chats about celebrity gossip and other pop culture stuff on the show.
She hopes one day to have a career in something similar, she said.
“I’m really hoping this radio thing has a future,” she said. “I would love to get into TV. I’m really into sports. I’d love to be a sports commentator, especially after this year. I can keep up the stats with any guy, I feel like. I’m pursuing every avenue.”
She’d also like to go back to college and finish her degree, she said. And she would like to keep dancing and doing choreography, perhaps own a studio one day.
And she grinned at the thought of her 10-year high school reunion in a few years.
“I’m, like, the nerd that made it,” she said. “The total dork that was wearing fan t-shirts and sweats. I think that would be really funny.”