Cheer teams continue to attract a wide range of athletes across the Tri-City community, now filling four gyms in the area with participants in both competitive and recreational options. Two of the gyms opened in the past year and the two others recently went under new ownership, turning over a new leaf on the popular sport that could make the summer Olympics by 2028.
Well-known photographer Brittney Kluse and her husband, Blake, bought Kennewick’s Elite Force Cheer, once owned and operated for more than 20 years by the owners of Mid-Columbia Gymnastics.
Rebranded to IMPACT Elite All-Stars, the gym at 8382 W. Gage Blvd. in Kennewick promises to keep providing the same family-friendly, laid-back environment the previous owners had become known for as one of the longest-operating gyms in the state.
“I was very used to this easy cheer lifestyle,” Brittney Kluse said. “The unique little magic ingredient of Force was that it just so easily fit into people’s lives. And I kept thinking, ‘Are we the only ones like this?’ I kept telling the former owners, ‘You created something that makes it impossible to walk away from. Now nothing will measure up to what you created.’”
The Kluses didn’t want to lose what they had come to know after their daughter first got involved with the program six years ago.
After learning the owners intended to close the gym, “I started kind of quietly trying to put it out there, and found this silent, quiet community of people being like, ‘Somebody save this!’”
The Kluses will continue operating it at the same location near Uncle Sam’s Saloon through a lease with Crown Management. Sale terms were not disclosed.
After the initial relief of confirming other families had a similar intent to remain at a gym that offered the same “feel” as Force, the Kluses were in for another shock. The number of athletes who wanted to be part of IMPACT’s competitive travel teams soared.
They enrolled more than 100 athletes for the 2022-23 season, more than doubling the previous year’s total.
The Kluses are committed to keeping the same “healthy balance” found at the gym previously, with practices scheduled two to three times each week and time off for school breaks in the winter and spring.
Kluse is a prolific photographer for senior portraits and working with teens has developed her skills as a mentor.
“I know a lot about building confidence in young kids, and I know how that starts is, you surround them with good role models and positive coaching, with a healthy balance in their lives,” she said.
Kluse has stayed in touch with one of her first clients, Lexi Chavallo, who will now be the gym’s head coach and a part owner with her husband, Jordan.
“The thing we preached right from the beginning is, ‘I’m gonna let the coaches coach.’ I barely know how to read a competition score sheet. But I do know how to run a business. So my husband and I are going to run the business, and we’re going to run it like a business. We’re not going to run it like a side project. And the coaches will have all the freedom in the world to inspire kids.”
They have six employees and don’t expect to own a cheer gym forever.
“This is not like anything we really would have done. We are not aggressive sports parents. This is just something our kid loves to do, and I wanted to protect that. If my daughter grows up to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, I probably failed as a parent somewhere along the way,” she said.
Angie and Darrin Henderson also have a daughter who loves the sport. They decided to open a cheer gym when things had shut down because of Covid-19.
“This never would have happened without the pandemic,” said Angie Henderson. “We found ourselves with extra time on our hands because we work full-time jobs as well. We really started thinking about a vision of what we had for a cheer gym and just decided to go for it.”
They opened Firehouse Elite at 2478 Henderson Loop in Horn Rapids, a space built just for their business and large enough to keep growing.
In just one year’s time, the walls of the gym are already lined with banners earned in national competitions.
“We took five teams to Summit in Florida, which is like the Super Bowl of cheer,” Henderson said. “Out of our teams, one took fifth, one took fourth and one took third. Prior to that, the highest any gym in the area had placed in Summit was fifth. Now, I don’t know how we’re going to beat that first showing!”
As the name implies, the gym has a theme surrounding firefighting, with team names like Sizzle, Fuego and Sirens, and is partly a nod to owner, Darrin, a captain with Benton Fire District 1 for more than 20 years.
“When you are part of a firehouse, it’s truly like your second family,” Henderson said. “It’s people you go out and overcome obstacles with, together. You’re super tightly bonded, and comfortable being yourself around them. As I thought about it, I was like, ‘Yep, that’s exactly what the name should be.’”
Henderson declined to say how much they invested into building out the gym in north Richland, but they targeted enrolling 50 athletes as a starting number with the “stretch goal” of 70.
They ended up with 76 athletes across eight competitive teams, as well as two recreational cheer teams, plus tumbling, stretching and stunt classes available, all speaking to the continued popularity of the sport. Last summer, the International Olympic Committee voted to give competitive cheerleading full recognition, paving the way for its inclusion in the summer games, possibly in Los Angeles in 2028.
The world of competitive cheer isn’t about rooting for other athletes from the sidelines.
It has a basis in gymnastics combined with dance and stunting, where athletes are lifted or tossed into the air.
“We do our own choreography and I think that sets us apart,” Henderson said. “It helps us be competitive, but at the same time, we’re positive and the athletes have fun and enjoy the experience. We also bring in people from the community to talk about mental health awareness, injury prevention and conditioning so they’re prepared before competition season.”
Henderson oversees the 10 part-time employees at Firehouse in addition to her role managing commercial lenders at U.S. Bank.
Eastside Edge recently underwent new ownership and rebranding to Tri-Cities Edge Cheer & Athletics, and is located at 1701 S. Washington St., Kennewick.
The Tri-Cities’ fourth cheer gym, Legacy Athletics, opened in 2021 at 1977 Fowler Drive in Richland.
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