ODESSA - Jennifer Mitchell has heard the jokes before. It's just a coincidence that she is head cheerleading coach at Mitchell High School.
She's also cheer director at XCEL 360 Sports and Fitness Academy on Gunn Highway, which attracts hundreds of gymnasts from Hillsborough County. On a recent Friday night, the place was packed with jumpers, tumblers and parents who decided this was a lot more fun than a movie and the mall.
Coach "Chris Chris" Highbrown has a long career in gymnastics and started training at the age of 9. He won several college and national awards before moving onto the business aspect by opening his gym. He recruited the best coaches he could find, led by Mitchell, who has an extensive career in gymnastics and education.
Besides being the cheer director at XCEL 360 and the Mitchell gymnastics coach, she also is a Spanish teacher and the department head at Mitchell. She really got her teaching program under way, learning as a volunteer at the Lifetime television show, "Cheerleader Nation."
Both have strong opinions in the ongoing battle over whether cheerleading is a legitimate sport - and they both get a kick out of it when a football player leaves a game with a finger booboo. "Some people like to kid us and say that if is not a sport, but we compete all year, not just for one team, but usually at least two. It's fun and I enjoy teaching, but it's a tough sport."
Mitchell has the scars to back it up.
"Two years ago I broke my back and didn't stop," Mitchell said. "Not a lot of football players can say that. I kept doing my stunts, my flips and didn't even know it was broken until the doctor told me a couple of weeks later."
"Some see this as a sport and understand that it isn't just about a bunch of pretty girls wearing skirts," Highbrown said.
Mitchell relates the story of the annual game between the Mitchell football team and the Mitchell powder puff football team.
"At least it gives the guys a chance to see how tough the girls can be," Mitchell said. "We are a lot tougher than we look."
For more information on XCEL 360 Sports and Fitness Academy, 1023 Gunn Hwy., call (813) 245-3498 or visit www.xcel360.com.