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Ex-Marine’s cheerleading studio in Timonium reflects military background

Joining the Marine Corps after graduation from George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology didn’t seem like an unusual career path to Russell Lyons, even though he was a cheerleader for the Wildcats during all four years at the Towson magnet school.

Lyons said that some of his fellow Marines didn’t quite understand his athletic background — at first.

“They said, ‘You were a cheerleader? You’ve got to be kidding me,’” the Parkton resident recalled. “I mean, I guess it is kind of an odd thing for a Marine.”

Odd or not, Lyons, 39, said he was able to win over his fellow recruits on one of the final tests of boot camp at the U.S. Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, S.C.

Known as “The Crucible,” a 54-hour team-building challenge in which recruits must march 35 miles while saddled with 45-pound backpacks, it was near the end of the arduous journey when Lyons’ cheerleader skills came into play.

As the Marines struggled to mount a wall and drop to the other side, he showed them a basic cheerleading move called a “full extension” that made the process of scaling the 12-foot obstacle a lot easier and faster.

It wasn’t the last time that Lyons would use his cheerleading skills to his advantage, considering that he has carved out a career by founding and owning his own cheerleading gym — Timonium-based Regal All-Stars — to coach a sport that has had the largest increase in participants among girls high school sports in the past two years, according to a survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

“It’s not your normal thing to see a Marine cheer coach,” Lyons said. “But my military background has served me well to show the level of respect and discipline they need. It’s a big reason why we’ve been so successful.”

Lyons said that his mother and the school counselor at Carver were surprised about his taking a nontraditional career path (only 5 percent of Carver grads enter the military), but “they both came on board and were fine with it.”

In addition to being stationed in North Carolina and Arizona for most of his seven-year Marine Corps stint, Lyons spent two months in a combat zone in the Kosovo Republic.

After leaving the Marines, he spent a couple of years as the cheerleading coach at Carver before doing the same for the Hereford Zone cheerleading teams.

After a year of guiding the Rebounders Gymnastics cheerleading team, Lyons started his own gym in 2011, one dedicated solely to cheerleading.

With 57 students, including two males, ranging in age from 5 to 18 practicing and preparing at his Greenspring Drive gym for a variety of competitive events, Lyons said that he uses the Marines’ bedrock core beliefs of “honor, courage and commitment” to help develop the skills and temperament they will need to compete at the highest levels.

Currently, three Regal All-Stars cheer for their high school teams, Lyons said. “There are a few who chose to wait until their sophomore year, including my daughter,” he said. “We are expecting to have eight to 10 next year.”

Perhaps the biggest payoff in cheerleading is earning a college scholarship, something that Regal hasn’t had yet. “[It is] very difficult and tough competition to get those,” Lyons said. Many colleges and universities provide scholarships worth between $500 and $1,000 a year to compensate cheerleaders for their participation on the team, according to the bizfluent.com website.

Each year, Regal’s age-based teams compete in 10 events or so, primarily in the mid-Atlantic, beginning with the Spirit of Fall Classic in Bel Air on Nov. 11.

From that point forward, Regal’s teams attempt to score well enough to earn a bid to the Ultimate U.S. Finals in Virginia Beach, Va., in April. Success there could propel them to the year’s most prestigious — and final — event, the D2 Summit at Disney World in Orlando, Fla., in May.

Lyons has coached his teams to championships twice there. He also has won a pair of national titles with the Towson University All-Star Cheer Club, which he coaches, too.

His dedicated staff members, including former longtime assistant Danielle Myers, help to make the Regal All-Stars a successful enterprise.

Myers, who grew up in Catonsville, participated in cheerleading at Catonsville Rec after a few years playing softball for Edmondson Heights Recreation Council or EDRECO. She graduated from Seton Keough and applied for a job at Rebounders while a student at Towson University.

She said the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Lyons was not the kind of person one likely would associate with being a cheerleading coach.

“But I found out that he’s a former Marine who comes off as a tough guy but that he really has a soft spot for the girls,” said Myers, 28, who has put her coaching career on hold to raise her newborn daughter, Lennox. “I really learned a lot from him and how to see things from a judge’s perspective, like he does.”

Lyons, whose 14-year-old daughter, Abby, is a member of the most advanced of the four Regal All-Stars teams, the Devil Dogs, said the program mixes in as much fun as it can but that the students are hard workers. “And we have a great coaching staff, a great group,” he said. “Once you are a student here, you are part of the family.”

Being a member of his real and extended families makes things “different” for her, Abby said.

“It can be a little frustrating at times,” the Hereford High freshman said about being coached by her dad. “I have to push a little harder than some of the others sometimes.”

Devil Dogs teammate Caity MacWilliams said that she decided to try cheerleading at the behest of a friend. The Towson High sophomore from West Towson is now in her third season with the Regal All-Stars.

“I like how cheerleading combines so many different things,” she said about the tumbling, jumping and flipping (gymnastic) aspects of the sport. “People look at it and think it’s easy, but it’s not.”

Both girls help to coach the Recon team, which is made up of special-needs athletes.

“It’s really cool,” Caity said. “They are all so nice and just so happy to be there.”

“I’m very close to all of them,” Abby said. “I’m always at their practices, and it’s a very cool experience.”

Lyons, who recently quit his job as a project manager for Communications Electronics in Timonium to work full time at Regal, said that he never looked at his cheerleading studio as a cash cow.

“I never thought, ‘Oh, this is my way to get rich,’” Lyons said. “The kids are more than just numbers to make money off of.”

His rewards, to some extent, are more in terms of the satisfaction he earns from coaching special-needs athletes on two separate teams. One is the Baltimore County Special Olympics cheerleading squad called the CATZ, and the other is the Regal All-Stars Recon squad.

It’s a blast coaching them,” Lyons said.

Two of the special-needs athletes on the Recon squad, Carney resident Lisa Miller, 25, and Towson’s Julianne Waechter, 28, were all smiles when talking about their affinity for Regal All-Stars.

“I get to hang out with my friends and learn new skills,” Miller said.

Her cohort, Waechter, described how much she likes being a “flyer,” which means she is the one being lifted by teammates forming a “base” on “stunts.”

Her mother, Glenda Cuevas, said that Waechter benefits in many ways from being part of the Recon group.

“It’s the most important thing in her life, other than family and friends,” Cuevas said. “She needs extra structure, too, and she gets it here. He [Lyons] is very dedicated to the girls. He can be a softee, but at the same time he’s tough and doesn’t accept excuses. It’s also a commitment. You can’t just show up when you want to, because your teammates are counting on you.”

Cuevas added that despite Lyons’ no-nonsense attitude, “He really cares about the kids’ need to belong to something, and they are just so well accepted here.”

Monthly fees for students range from $85 to $185, depending on how often they attend practice sessions at the gym.

No one is turned away or cut from the program. Rather, students are evaluated on their jumping, tumbling and overall athletic abilities.

Competition is based on guidelines set down by the U.S. All Star Federation, a governing organization that credentials coaches, certifies safety judges, sanctions events and maintains safety guidelines in order to provide the safest possible environment for cheer and dance athletes to train and compete, according to the usasf.net website.

Safety of the students is paramount, in all aspects of their lives, Lyons said.

That’s why he is a fully certified first-aid trainer, while one of his other coaches is a physical therapist.

In addition, Regal All-Stars’ rules stipulate that no coach is ever allowed to be alone with a student or students. Nor is a coach permitted to give a student a ride in his or her car.

“Friending” a student on Facebook is also a no-no, Lyons said.

All in all, Lyons said he is pleased with his gym’s success story and the influence his military background has had on his students.

“I expect my kids to have respect and self-discipline,” he said. “They have to make sure that their housework and chores are done so that they can come to practice. I ask these kids to do some things that they don’t think they would be capable of, but they do it. That’s why we’re a small gym that packs a big wallop.”

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