Canby High School grad Tucker Hunter has seen more than his fair share of success in the world of competitive cheer, including three ICU gold medals for Team USA, three NCAA national championships and several other world titles — all before turning 30.
But his career was raised to new heights — pun, as always, intended — with a dazzling debut on America’s Got Talent last week that had celebrity judges Sofia Vergara, Eric Stonestreet, Howie Mandel and even Simon Cowell, well, cheering.
The segment featured Hunter — the son of former Canby Cougar baseball coach Marty and former Canby cheer coach Kim, who died in 2015 from ovarian cancer — with his All Star Cheer team, the CA Wildcats based out of the Cheer Athletics gym in his new hometown of Plano, Texas.
Hunter told the Canby Now Podcast Monday that he has been part of several highly successful competitive cheer teams at the Cheer America gym since moving to Texas four or five years ago.
The teams form in the fall and compete throughout the winter and spring, ultimately culminating with the national championships at Disney World in April — canceled this year, of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Filmed in March, the America’s Got Talent audition was actually one of the last performances the Wildcats were able to put on, and — also because of Covid-19 — it happened with no live audience beyond host Terry Crews and the panel of celebrity judges.
Gavin Newsom, governor of California — where AGT is filmed — had just issued the order that week prohibiting gatherings of more than 100.
“We didn’t know there wasn’t going to be an audience until we got there,” Hunter said. “It was not really what we were used to, because whenever you’re competing in a cheer competition, you’re used to there being a big crowd. And you can kind of rely on the crowd to let you know how your routine is going.”
The routine — which the Wildcats had been perfecting since November, but tweaked slightly for AGT because of the smaller stage space and different personnel — wowed the judges, all four of whom voted them onto the next round.
“It was very cool to hear all the positive comments they had,” the former Canby resident recalled. “Most people aren’t super familiar with All Star Cheerleading until you see it live, so I think they were kind of surprised. It was neat to get their feedback.”
They even got nice words from the notoriously prickly Simon Cowell.
“Yeah — he was nice to us,” Hunter said with a laugh. “We didn’t get to watch any of the other auditions, so I’m not sure if he was rude to them, like I guess he’s more known for, but with us, he was very positive.”
The Wildcats’ routine features a dazzling array of acrobatics, flips and cheerleaders being casually tossed the height of the America’s Got Talent sign. It looks effortless, and it’s supposed to.
“I think it’s pretty similar to gymnastics when you watch the Olympics,” Hunter said. “It looks so easy, but that’s because no one sees all the trial and error and the amount of repetition it takes to get it to that point.”
During the team’s interviews, in which Hunter was among those prominently featured, the Wildcats drive home the message that cheerleading is a true sport on its own merits — not mere window dressing for more mainstream competitions like basketball or football.
“There’s a lot more to cheerleading than most people assume,” he said. “When I say, ‘I do cheerleading,’ they assume I just stand on the sidelines and pump my arms. It was cool to show a different side of this thing that I’ve done for a large portion of my life.”
Hunter has heard from many of his former friends and neighbors in Canby this week since the AGT segment aired, and he said it has been cool to see how much excitement and interest it has generated. Though he could not disclose what happens in future episodes, he did confirm the Wildcats’ story is not done yet.
“I don’t know how much I’m allowed to share, but there are more rounds coming,” he said. “We have not gone back yet to film more, but hopefully we will soon. There’s been a bit of a delay because of everything that’s happening right now.”