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Chasing perfection: A look behind the scenes of the pre-teen world of competitive cheerleading

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Gianna Antico and the rest of the Twinkles compete in a local competition, the Cheersport Philadelphia Grand Championship on Dec. 11. 2011, at the Liacouras Center at Temple University.

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Andrea Lipkus doesn't wait till she's at practice to start her stretching exercises as her mom, Valerie, drives her to the World Cup All Stars Gym in Freehold in October 2011.

Below is an excerpt from a 9-month project by New Jersey's Star-Ledger on the Twinkles - Chasing perfection: A tumble into the world of competitive cheerleading 

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Andrea Lipkus, Gabby Cignetti, Camryn Sycoff and Samantha Santaniello pass the time giving massages as the Twinkles wait to perform on Nov. 20, 2011, at the Universal Cheerleading Association Northeast Championship in Toms River, NJ.

Jackie Freidman / The Star-Ledger:

The Twinkles, ages 8 through 12, train at the World Cup All Stars Gym in Freehold, where they are redefining what it means to be a cheerleader. Forget right now about what you see on the sidelines at football games. This is cheerleading as a high-flying sport whose soaring participants work like professionals, often devoting six or seven days every week to training.

They attend formal practice on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, take private lessons and flock to the gym for open tumbling sessions. Not even the slightest flaw is tolerated — they will repeat their 2-minute, 25-second routine with mind-numbing devotion for six months before performing it in front of an audience.

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

During the second day of the Athletic Championships on Jan. 29 in Providence, R.I., Gianna Antico and her stunt group take their turn practicing stunts in a small convention hall room.

But the Twinkles also act their age, chatting about "Toddlers & Tiaras," how much they hate hair spray and how blueberries turn their teeth purple — all while doing backflips.

"Cheerleading’s taken over the world," World Cup co-owner Elaine Pascale says. "It’s on TV. It’s in magazines. Our community has really grown to be very, very vast as far as encompassing a lot of lay people that never knew such a thing existed."

The girls are aware they are phenoms, devoting their unnaturally chiseled bodies, their time, their emotional capacity and their parents’ money — some more than $10,000 a year — to being the best. Because when you’re a Twinkle, nothing else matters.

Read the complete story -- Chasing perfection: A tumble into the world of competitive cheerleading

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Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Lauren Preston gets some help stretching from her mother, Lori, as other Twinkles look on and her teddy bear sits nearby at the Rebel Classic Cheer Championship at Howell High School on Jan. 15. The teddy bear, which she has had since birth and goes everywhere with her, was always close by, until she lost it on a competitive trip to Florida later in the season.

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Gianna Antico hugs Andrea Lipkus to cheer her up after Andrea had a "mind block" and wasn't able to tumble during Twinkles practice in February at the World Cup All Stars Gym.

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Brighid Gibney reacts to the cold spray as she is spray-tanned by cheer mom Dorn Stephenson in a hotel stairwell the night of Jan. 27, before the Twinkles compete at the Athletic Championships in Providence, R.I.

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Nikki Ryan kills time by throwing her American Girl doll into the air while waiting for all the World Cup cheerleading teams to finish on the first day of the NCA All-Star National Championship on Feb. 25.

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Bella Matrone, center, and Brighid Gibney carry the NCA All-Star National Championship trophy and banner offstage after the Twinkles won in Dallas on Feb. 26.

Saed Hindash / The Star-Ledger

Alexis Adamo couldn't wait to go to sleep in her NCA All-Star National Championship jacket after the Twinkles placed first in Dallas on Feb. 26.

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