In the summer of 1994, Tomoko Kojima was watching an NFL preseason game in San Diego as a part of her home-stay program. But it wasn’t the Chargers or the visiting San Francisco 49ers that caught her attention. Instead, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the cheerleaders.

News photoJapan’s Tomoko Kojima has reached the pinnacle of the cheerleading world by making the squad of the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

“They were just pretty,” says the 26-year-old Kojima, who spent the last two seasons as a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Cheerleaders. “They looked really brilliant. I didn’t understand football rules and couldn’t speak English well at that time, but I never got bored during the game. I was so impressed with how well the cheerleaders communicated with the fans without speaking.”

Since that day, Kojima’s life has completely changed. Cheerleading replaced swimming as her No. 1 pursuit. Twenty months later, she enrolled at Kyoto’s Ritsumeikan University, which is known for its sports programs, to start a cheerleading career.

Unlike other college cheerleaders, Kojima had no prior dancing experience, but her passion for cheerleading and a lot of hard work helped improve her performance enough to become one of the co-captains in her senior year.

“When I was a sophomore, the Ritsumeikan football team won the collegiate national championship and advanced to the All-Japan national championship game,” says Kojima, one of 10 Japanese cheerleaders who have made it to the NFL level. “After making it to the top stages of college sports, my next goal was to reach the ultimate stage of cheerleading, and to me that was the NFL.”

After graduating from Ritsumeikan University, Kojima joined the cheerleader squad for industrial league’s Matsushita Denko football team, and took part in the NFL Cheerleader Audition in Japan in 2002, one of NFL Japan’s programs to encourage Japanese cheerleaders to extend their careers into the pro football league.

Kojima was among four qualifiers from the domestic audition, but failed to pass the final audition held in the United States that could have made her a member of the 49ers’ cheerleaders.

“I couldn’t make it, but at the same time I got some confidence,” Kojima says. “I felt an NFL cheerleader was way out of my reach before the audition. But after that, I got the feeling that I could reach it. It seemed just a few short steps away. I told myself, ‘I can do it. I’ve got do it.’ “

After returning to Japan, Kojima spent that year taking ballet lessons, jazz dancing and tap-dancing classes while performing for Matsushita Denko. She also studied American-style makeup. She even changed her job to give her more time to spend on cheerleading.

One day, she came across a quote, which said “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” on the Buccaneers official Web site.

“I was so encouraged by the words, and I was really impressed with the fact that the team, through the Web site, cheered up a girl living in a country far away from Tampa and speaking a different language. I decided this is the team I should go to and make my dreams come true.”

In March of 2003, Kojima was in Tampa, Fla., taking the audition for the Buccaneers Cheerleaders. Because the Bucs won the Super Bowl in 2002, more than 500 girls showed up for the tryout.

And it wasn’t only the dancing audition; the team had the participants write an essay and take a quiz on football, the NFL and the Buccaneers, which surprised Kojima and was quite a struggle. But a few weeks later, Kojima found herself among the new 32-member Tampa Bay cheerleading squad as the first-ever foreigner in the Buccaneers organization.

“I guess they recognized my strong passion to fulfill my dream,” Kojima explains. “They actually have said that attitude is very important for the cheerleaders, who are required to make a lot of charity appearances off the football field.”

Kojima made her debut as an NFL cheerleader in Japan when the Buccaneers played the New York Jets in the 2003 American Bowl in Tokyo.

“It was great,” Kojima says. “My parents attended the game and my teammates enjoyed staying in my country. I wish the Bucs played here every year (laughs).

“What I struggled with most in my first season is the English language. You have to communicate well with your teammates. But I couldn’t say exactly what I wanted to say in English. When I spoke, the flow of their conversation stopped. That frustrated me so much. It took some time to feel comfortable in the squad.”

Most NFL cheerleaders have occupations other than dancing on the sidelines on game days. In Tampa, they must be a full-time or part-time worker, a full-time student or a mother, though Kojima was an exemption as a foreign cheerleader and was financially supported by her parents.

Besides two 3 1/2-hour team practices a week, the Bucs cheerleaders have to participate in charity activities in their spare time, both during the NFL season and in the offseason. And, surprisingly, they are not paid, even for their game-day performances.

“Except for the non-charity activities, such as a company-sponsored party, the Bucs cheerleaders are not paid at all,” Kojima says. “Some NFL teams pay for the game-day performance, but the Bucs don’t. We only earn two game tickets.”

Unfair? Kojima doesn’t think so.

“Through cheerleading, we can communicate with many people and give them some energy. But we also get energy in return. That’s something you don’t want to exchange for money,” Kojima says.

One day in her first NFL season, Kojima and her teammates visited a hospital and met a paralyzed veteran.

“He couldn’t speak, but somehow I understood what he felt,” Kojima recalls. “I had difficulty communicating in English, so I knew how frustrated he felt. We communicated with each other without speaking. He looked very happy and shed tears when I left. That was one of the happiest moments in my cheerleading career.”

Kojima left for Tampa earlier this month to take the audition for her third season with the Buccaneers. Even Kojima, a two-year veteran, has to get through the audition to return to the squad. Experience will never be a guarantee to make the squad.

“I’ll be dancing one more season or two,” says Kojima, who hopes to go to a graduate school in the United States. “After finishing school, I want to expand cheerleading more in this country and support Japanese cheerleaders who want to go to the United States. I have made my dreams come true, but that is not the end. My next step is to support somebody else’s dream. That is what cheerleaders are all about.”

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