PAWTUCKET â€” Most pro football experts figured Kelsey Fournier and her New England Patriots cheerleader teammates would have spent a chilly Sunday evening outdoors at Gillette Stadium, coaxing freezing fans into making noise for the home team in the AFC championship game.
Instead, the New York Jets ousted the favored Patriots last Sunday in the conference semifinals, ending the season for players, fans and cheerleaders alike.
Fournier, a 2007 graduate of St. Raphael Academy, has been a member of the Patriots cheerleading squad for the past two seasons and hopes to make the team one more time before moving on to other things in her life.
â€śIt was always a dream of mine to become a Patriots cheerleader,â€ť Fournier admitted last week. â€śMy parents (Ron and Heather) and sister (Alicia) are all big Patriots fans. I can remember sitting around the television, watching the Patriots, ever since I was a little girl. Thatâ€™s when I started to dream about becoming a Patriots cheerleader.â€ť
That dream came true in 2009. Kelsey has spent the last two years balancing her studies at Rhode Island College with the many duties of a Patriots cheerleader.
â€śThere is a three-year limit for Patriots cheerleaders,â€ť Fournier said. â€śI am finishing my second year. We have to try out all over again every year. I am hoping to qualify for my third and final year with the Patriots.â€ť
Fournierâ€™s background is in dance, not cheerleading. She did not participate in cheerleading as a high school student.
â€śI began taking dance lessons when I was three years old,â€ť she admitted. â€śI have trained at the Shannon Oâ€™Brien School of Dance in Seekonk for 18 years. I have danced competitively, both in national and international competitions. I went to Poland in 2008 with the United States Dance Team.â€ť
Looking for a new challenge, Fournier tried out for the Patriotsâ€™ cheerleading squad in 2009 and made the team on her first try. Kelseyâ€™s experience and training in dance gave her a strong foundation for the tryouts. However, once she made the team, Kelsey learned a whole new array of cheerleading skills under the direction of head coach Tracy Sormanti.
â€śI had to learn a lot of new things,â€ť he said. â€śIn cheerleading, you have to be able to toss people. You need great social skills because we do so many community and charity events. It is considered a part-time job but itâ€™s more full-time when you take into account all the time we put in each week.â€ť
Fournier is a senior at Rhode Island College majoring in community health. She spent Christmas and New Yearâ€™s entertaining troops in Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan and Qatar. Fournier was joined by coach Sormanti and five other Patriots cheerleaders. They blended into a group of entertainers who gave 10 shows while touring 12 forward operating bases and command outposts.
Fournier never realized that the dancing lessons she began taking as a three-year-old would take her 18 years later to Afghanistan where she would help entertain soldiers.
â€śI volunteered to go on an Armed Forces Entertainment Tour,â€ť she said. â€śSix Patriots cheerleaders and our coach (Sormanti) went on the tour. We flew over on a plane that was called the Bob Hope Express.â€ť
Bob Hope, of course, began the whole process of entertaining troops during World War II and followed through in Korea and Vietnam. This vital morale-building process has continued in Hopeâ€™s memory during recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Fournier and her teammates arrived in Kyrgyzstan on December 20. They reached Northern Afghanistan on Christmas Day and then spent celebrated New Yearâ€™s in Qatar.
â€śKyrgyzstan was pretty cold,â€ť Fournier said. â€śIt is near northern China, up near the mountains. It was snowing all the time. Afghanistan is just very cold. We finished in Qatar, where the temperature was around 70 degrees.â€ť
Fournier gained some insight into the hardships that soldiers experience during their tours.
â€śOur trip definitely gave me a greater appreciation of what our soldiers are doing over there. We got to experience some of the things they deal with, like the cold weather. One of the best things we did was eat every meal with the troops. We got to know some of the soldiers on a personal level.
â€śIt was Christmas and New Yearâ€™s and that really put things in perspective for us, knowing the soldiers were away from home during the holidays. You realize that could be any one of us. I really appreciate what our soldiers are doing over there.â€ť
Fournier said it was â€śa touching momentâ€ť when the troops presented the entertainment squad with coins that honored their visit.
â€śThey give out coins to soldiers for special things they have done,â€ť Fournier said. â€śIt meant a lot to us to receive one from the troops.â€ť
And the soldiers really appreciated the shows that the Patriots cheerleaders and other entertainers performed in front of large crowds.
â€śThe shows were great for their morale,â€ť Fournier said. â€śWe did 10 full shows. We visited 12 forward bases and command outposts.â€ť
Several bases featured crowds of around 3,000 soldiers. At a few remote forward command posts, the show played to perhaps a dozen soldiers. The entertainment squad traveled on a variety of military aircraft: Chinook and Blackhawk helicopters along with C130 and C17 airplanes.
Fournier and her teammates signed autographs, did photo sessions with the troops, and participated in several re-enlistment ceremonies.
â€śIt is an experience I will never forget,â€ť Kelsey Fournier said.