When Ai Yasuda was named to the San Francisco 49ers’ Gold Rush cheerleading squad for the second straight year, she realized that although the door may not be wide, it is always open.
Yasuda has long believed that Japanese cheerleaders are capable of sharing the limelight with their pompom-waving counterparts from overseas. Now, she says, more women from Japan are learning of the growing number of opportunities to make it big on the fields of the great American sport.
This year, the dance team for the National Football League’s 49ers decided to hold tryouts in Japan, opening the way for aspirants in the Far East to prove their worth in the heartland of cheerleading.
“I think there were a lot of people who gave it a try because the audition was held in Japan,” says Yasuda, who traveled to San Francisco for the preliminary audition a year ago. “I know how difficult it is to go to America on your own.
“Considering the lack of popularity of the NFL in Japan, there were quite a large number of applicants. And to imagine that each one was prepared to begin a life abroad — that’s something.”
In April, the first NFL international cheerleading tryouts saw nearly 70 Japanese women turn up to vie for a chance to dance on the sidelines of an NFL game.
Like all other active Gold Rush members, Yasuda was not automatically guaranteed a spot in the squad for next season. Instead, she was asked to submit an application, sign up as an entry and demonstrate her skills before a panel of judges.
“I was more nervous than relaxed this time because I knew people would look at me as the one who passed (the audition) last year,” she says.
Of the 16 finalists called in for an interview the following day, four earned tickets to San Francisco to perform in the final audition. Yasuda was the only one who made the 32-member team for the 2002-2003 season.
She was chosen for what Gold Rush director Erin Avalos calls her “overall package” — the flair, charm, skills and personality that will enable Yasuda to fit into the squad.
“It was my first real final experience, and all alone,” says Yasuda, who along with compatriot Tokiko Sugitani was granted the privilege of taking part in the final last season via a video selection.
Yasuda, who leaves Japan in May for training camp in the United States, occasionally makes voluntary appearances before cheerleaders from her alma mater and the Nissan Tokyo Skyliners of the Japan X-League — a nonprofessional company league — to provide living proof that there is a future in Japanese cheerleading.
“A lot of people who cheerlead as students quit upon graduation because in Japan, people can’t imagine cheerleading being a profession,” she says. “But (I volunteer) just so they know there’s someone like me who made something out of it.”
Language, cultural barriers and adapting to a new lifestyle were hurdles for Yasuda in her first year away from home. But it wasn’t about speaking the language, or about fame, or even about money.
Yasuda and roommate Sugitani signed their contracts knowing that due to their visa status they would not be paid for each performance like the other members.
“I thought if I go through it all again, I’ll get a better feel for what being an NFL cheerleader is all about,” she says. “Now I’ll be able to move on to another level.”
Yasuda recalls the moment when she and Sugitani were introduced in a halftime ceremony to the 49ers’ home crowd as the first Japanese cheerleaders on the Gold Rush and says better comprehension of English would have helped her then.
“We must have been notified earlier of what was going on, but it didn’t occur to me that we were the center of attention until I saw Tokiko and my face on the electronic screen,” Yasuda chuckled.
“And the sign read, ‘Welcome to San Francisco.’ It was such a moving moment.”
In her sophomore year, the 26-year-old Tokyo native will put on her bright red uniform and golden boots and shake her pompoms — but this time without the companionship of Sugitani.
“Even just for once, I’d like to let the girls cheerleading in Japan perform at an NFL game,” she says. “We may be doing the same thing, but it requires a totally different caliber of performance.”
Last season, the 49ers had an average home attendance of 67,469, the 13th highest among the 31 NFL teams.
Yasuda will bring her confidence and experience to the Bay Area again Sept. 15, when the 49ers play their first regular season home game against the Denver Broncos.
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