Sarah L, this week's New York Jets Flight Crew Gameday Girl, isn't like most of her dancing companions.
While most dancers at the professional level typically were enrolled in their first dance classes before they reached the age of 10, Sarah was different.
"I started late because I was involved in a lot of sports," she said.
Swimming, soccer and basketball took up a majority of Sarah's time as a child. At the age of 9, she shifted her focus toward gymnastics. She would practice three times a week in three hours segments and would participate in all four events — vault, balance beam, uneven bars and floor — during competitions.
However, after four years of gymnastics, she discovered a new passion and in the least likely of ways.
"People always ask me, why did you decide to be a dancer?" Sarah said. "I tell them I was huge into Britney Spears. I was a big Britney Spears fanatic and I would record every video that was on, every show that she was performing on, and I would just watch her and watch her dances and I would get so excited. I think that was a big reason. I thought, that is exactly what I want to do."
From watching and studying Spears, Sarah became inspired. The second-year Flight Crew Cheerleader said she and her mother, Diana, attended at least five of the pop sensation's concerts growing up. Her best memory of the five shows came after seeing Spears perform in Cincinnati, when the star was on her "Crazy 2K Tour" back in 2000.
"We walked back from the concert and we were staying overnight because we were three hours away from home," Sarah recalled. "We ended up seeing her tour bus and I walked over and got to meet some of the dancers that night. They were saying they were going to be leaving in the morning. So we just walked over in the morning and we caught Britney coming out of the hotel and getting onto her tour bus. I got to meet her. She was kind of in a hurry rushing out, but she definitely was very nice and signed autographs and said hello. We were able to tell her we had a great time at the show the night before."
Getting the opportunity to meet her childhood idol was an inspiring moment for Sarah and it never left her as her dancing career took off.
"I still can remember exactly how excited I was when I look at those pictures," she said. "I'm taken back, even though it was 12 years ago."
In Sarah's mind, what made Spears so unique and entertaining to watch was the energy she brought whenever she stepped on stage as well as how much fun her backup dancers seemed to be having whenever they were in her presence.
"How could you not love that and enjoy that?" she said. "I wanted to be a part of it."
The Start of Something Special
Sarah began taking ballet and jazz classes, transitioned into hip-hip and finished with modern dance. She went on to attend Ohio State, where she majored in dance performance and was a member of a student-run extracurricular hip-hop dance team called "Dancelinx."
Shortly following her graduation in 2008, she became a production dancer on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. She had a one-year contract with the cruise line and the ship's main port was Nassau, Bahamas.
"It was very exciting," Sarah said. "You're on a ship and in a cast. It was 11 of us and we were all very close and we were all in the show together. You put up two shows. Basically, you're traveling and you're on a huge ship and you're performing four nights a week, eight shows, and you're going to the Bahamas."
Sarah had plenty of dancing friends, but none of them had ever experienced what she did by dancing on a cruise ship.
"I always knew that I wanted to move to New York, so I thought that would be something neat to gain experience, dancing, performing and doing shows," she said. "I thought it was going to be a great way to save money because I knew it was going to be expensive to move. I thought, OK, I'll be on a ship and you're not paying for room or board when you're on a ship. You're just kind of making your money and saving it."
Once the year was up, Sarah moved back to her hometown of Crestline, Ohio, and began saving her funds. She lived with her mother for eight months and labeled the period at home as one she will always cherish.
"I hadn't really been around my family because I went to college and even though I was still close enough to visit, I didn't visit home a ton," she said. "It was nice because I got to go home and be with my family every day and really just sit and plan."
In January 2010, Sarah officially moved to New York. While she certainly was advancing her way up in the dancing ranks, something still was missing. Something she aspired for still hadn't been accomplished.
"I always wanted to audition and be part of a team," she said. "I thought it would be fun to do either NBA or NFL. I just wanted to be part of a professional team. I hadn't done it and I didn't really know anybody that had done NFL. I was really curious."
Earning Her Spot
Although she missed the Flight Crew tryouts her first year living in the city, she was settled and prepared for the 2011 tryouts. Despite having attended several dancing auditions previously (even one for a Beyoncé tour), nothing compared to the Flight Crew's. Sarah described it as the hardest audition she's ever been through.
"I was a little intimidated and a little overwhelmed," she said of the tryout, "but I think with each round, I felt more and more excited, and with every round I got through, I was that much closer that I just pushed a little harder. Then when they announced the team, I was ecstatic."
After making the team on her first attempt and now in her second season with the squad, Sarah acknowledges she has grown not only as a dancer but as a person.
"Going through this experience and performing for all these people and going through rehearsals every day, I just feel like I'm ready for anything, almost," she said.
Nowadays things aren't the same as they were when Sarah first joined the Flight Crew. She is still being challenged as a dancer, but her life took a hit last month when unexpectedly, Diana died. Sarah missed a week of rehearsals and flew back to Crestline to spend time with her family and attend her mother's funeral. It wasn't the first parent she had lost. Her father had passed away back in 2007.
"I know that I'm so lucky," Sarah said, putting what she's had to overcome into perspective. "Some people don't even have the opportunity to have their family there to watch them do something absolutely amazing, because not many people get to experience what we [Flight Crew] experience."
The last time Sarah saw her mother was in August. It was Diana's birthday weekend and she came to visit Sarah in Brooklyn, where she now resides. They shared lots of laughs, attended a Broadway show and a New York Mets game together, and concluded their magnificent weekend at MetLife Stadium with Diana sitting in the front row watching Sarah perform during the Jets-Panthers preseason game on Aug. 26.
"We were very close," Sarah said, "but being here, I didn't get to see her very often. I would maybe make it home twice a year. But it was such a blessing that she happened to come here just a couple of weeks before she passed. We had such a blast and did so many amazing things when she was here.
"I know that she had a great time and I'm thankful and blessed that I spent those four or five days with her. It's amazing to have that as the last memory. I couldn't have asked for anything better."
Diana's Everlasting Presence
While Sarah said it's still frustrating to cope with her loss, she also doesn't forget a motto her mother emphasized and embraced.
"The biggest thing I think I took from my mom was that she always instilled in me the most important thing in life was just to be happy," she said. "I think that is something I always carry with me and something I do live by. I think it's extremely important. She would always say so many people work jobs that they're unhappy with or they kind of feel miserable or they do it for money. But it's not about that. The most important thing is that you can do what you love and be happy doing it. That's something that I carry with me all the time, no matter what I'm doing throughout my entire life."
Like her teammate, Tiffany, who lost her brother and father in an accident, Sarah refers to her fellow members on the Flight Crew as her sisters.
"They really are my family and they are my support," Sarah said. "I'm totally blessed to have all of those girls."
And regardless of how significant an impact Diana's passing had on Sarah, she said she never once thought of walking away. For as we know, dancing was not only a sport but also a love she developed with Diana by her side. It was a steadfast love, and one that began 12 years ago when a devotional mother and a passionate daughter attended a Britney Spears concert.
"I feel like you have certain commitments," Sarah said. "It's my life and I can't just make it stop. Unfortunate things happen, and I'm all about pushing through and making the best of everything. Dancing, it's what I love. It's what takes my mind off of it. It's an escape. I can go to rehearsal and dance. And I know that my mom would want me to be there 100 percent."