Rain Athletics’ Aqua cheer team captures 2nd straight world championship

Monday, May 27, 2024 | 10:11 AM

In 2013, Caleigh Epolito, Jacob Parker and Jordan Thomas needed a name for a competitive cheer gym they were opening in McKeesport.

They came up with Rain Athletics and based the name off an inside joke.

“We realized anytime something good was happening in life, we always made the joke that it was raining, which meant something good was about to happen,” Epolito said.

Fast forward a decade, and the world of competitive cheerleading has taken on its fair share of water.

In April, Rain Athletics’ Level 6 team, Aqua, won its second straight world championship at the invite-only All Star Cheerleading World Championships in Orlando, Fla. The event is sanctioned by the United States All Star Federation (USASF), which is the governing body for All Star cheerleading.

The Aquas bested more than 500 other squads.

“It’s one of those things you want to make happen when you’re first starting out, and it just seems so far off,” Parker said. “Now that it’s happened, it feels like a dream come true.”

Added Epolito: “When we started the gym 10 years ago, we decided we wanted to accomplish big things. We feel very blessed.”

Just a year ago, a forecast of rain wasn’t so enjoyable.

In March of 2023, powerful storms moved through the Pittsburgh area and ripped the roof off Rain Athletics’ home gym.

Luckily, no one was inside as the Aquas were at a competition in Columbus.

“Thank God we were away at a competition, because if it was any other Saturday, our gym would have been full of people,” Epolito said. “The gym looked like a tin can with its the lid peeled back.”

For seven months, the Rain Athletics program had to train away from their home gym to be physically and mentally prepared for the world championships that were only a month away.

The program was able to use a nearby middle school gym for a week. After that, their landlord let them use the vacant space next door as their home gym.

“We didn’t have our equipment, just mats, to practice on,” Parker said. “We couldn’t do any tumbling, we could only stunt. We also had to deal with no central air and fluctuating temperatures during the months of March and April.”

Two positives came from Rain Athletics fighting through adversity.

First, they finally were forced to go ahead with renovations they were mulling over before the roof was ripped of the gym.

“Life is like that sometimes,” Epolito said. “When you’re not sure, the universe sort of gives you a shove to the path you’re meant to be on. Our gym is now more beautiful than it’s ever been.”

The second positive was the gym, more specifically the Aqua team, was able to compose itself and went on to win the world championship that April.

“When we returned from Columbus, we did what we do best; we bonded as a cheer family,” Epolito said.

In the process of earning back-to back championships, Rain Athletics became known for performing mistake-free routines.

In the 10 competitions they compete in every year, both last year’s and this year’s Aqua squads performed a handful of deduction-free routines. This year’s championship squad produced an error-free routine to claim the championship.

“In a sport that’s so subjective, we can’t predict the score judges are going to give us, but what we can control is doing our routines deduction-free,” Epolito said. “We don’t send our athletes to a competition floor feeling uncertain. Anything the athletes are going to perform they’ve done 100 times successfully in the gym.”

The 2018 Aqua squad epitomized perfection.

“That squad was one of, if not the first ever, team to go the entire season without a deduction,” Parker said. “A long time ago, we made it our goal to perform as many deduction-free routines as we could. Now it’s what we’re known for and has become the standard for our gym.”

Rain’s standard is what draws girls from all over Western Pennsylvania for a chance at a competitive cheer championship.

There were girls from 13 area high schools, and out of the 22 girls on the Aqua team, nine attend schools in Westmoreland County.

Norwin had a contingent of five with Alaina Baumgartner, Audrey Porter, Avery Hunter, Logan Keller and Sophia LoChiatto. Morgan Shaffer and Sophia Bonesio go to Hempfield. Kaitlyn Lawson is a Penn-Trafford student, and Sydney Gimbel is from Franklin Regional.

Taking on girls from different areas and backgrounds and having them compete as one and be successful in doing so is quite the challenge for the Rain coaching staff.

“Anytime you get someone from a different gym, you have to teach them your culture, the way you do certain skills, the way that you stunt and tumble,” Parker said.

Said Epolito: “We’re able to take everyone’s different backgrounds and use them to our advantage. It’s like a really good puzzle with all these amazing pieces that you know fit, but you have to find out how they fit.”

Rain Athletics trains six levels of athletes, with Level 1 being for beginners and Level 6 being the most advanced. Every team under each level is named after weather events, and ages range from 2 to 18.

All of Rain’s younger teams finished in the top three in their respective competitions at The Summit, an end-of-the season, invite-only event for younger cheer squads across the country:

• Weather Girls – first place in the U16 division

• Electric – first place in the Senior Level 4.2 division

• Brellas – first place in the Junior Level 3 division

• Downpour – second place in the Small Senior 4 division

• Cloudy – second place in the Senior 3 division

• Crystal – third place in the Junior Level 1 division

“We strive for that same level of excellence, commitment, discipline, and expectations across the board. It allows us as a gym to constantly raise the bar,” Epolito said.

The gym is hoping Rain will be in the forecast in future years and portend more great things for Rain Athletics.

“I’m very proud of where we are, of what we’ve accomplished,” Epolito said. “I hope we continue to build successful teams, strong athletes and grow our cheerleading family with the same ideals, commitment and expectations that people have come to expect from us.”

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