By MIKE CHAIKEN
On the sidelines of the New England Patriots’ home games at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Mass. this coming season, Bristol residents may see a familiar entertain the crowd.
And her journey toward this accomplishment is an example of overcoming physical adversity.
Karen Link, the former Miss Teen Bristol in 2007 (and then Miss Connecticut’s Outstanding Teen 2007), is the one of the newest members of the Patriots’ cheerleaders.
“I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. Not only do I get to do what I love each day but I get to do perform at Gillette stadium, in support of my favorite sports team, in front of 70,000 fans,” said Link via email. “Talk about the dream job.”
The gig also gives Link the opportunity to use one of her lifelong talents.
“I’ve been a dancer consistently since the age of 2 and dancing professionally post-college has always been a dream of mine,” said Link.
However, Link’s journey might have been unthinkable years ago after she broke her back in a car accident.
“(M)y senior year of high school… my world was turned upside down after being a passenger in a head-on collision. I broke my spine in the accident and immediately was rushed into a spinal-fusion surgery, which inserted rods and screws along my spine to hold the vertebras together,” said Link.
“The recovery process was a long one, I had to learn how to walk again and do things like climb stairs and sit down and stand up. I was devastated to hear that I would never be able to dance at the level I had before,” said Link.
However, here Link is getting ready to dance up a storm for the Pats.
“I don’t take ‘no’ for an answer… and fought through the long rehab process to ease my way back into being active and eventually found my way back to the dance floor,” said Link.
“Looking back at that unexpected obstacle in my life I realize how very blessed I am,” she said.
Link said joining the cheerleaders marks off an item on her bucket list.
“Being a member of the New England Patriots Cheerleading squad has been a dream of mine for a while now,” said Link, who graduated from Holy Cross High School. “I remember doing research on the team my sophomore year of college, five years ago, which is when I really started thinking about what I needed to work on to gain a position on this squad and if it would be feasible to be a member while I was in still in college.”
The 23-year-old Terryville native explained, “I decided to delay trying out until my senior year of college and made it through to finals, but unfortunately that’s where the dream stopped.”
“After I graduated from Endicott College,” said Link, “I moved to New York City for a job in fashion and beauty public relations.”
But, Link said, “I simply couldn’t stay away from Boston though and decided to move back last year, with the goal of being a member of the Patriots cheerleaders on the forefront of my mind.” (She currently works in the corporate communications department at a speech recognition company, Nuance Communications, at its headquarters in Burlington, Mass., communicating with the press and analysts about Nuance’s technologies and innovations.)
“Since last June,” said Link, “I’ve been taking dance classes in Boston, working out and focusing on healthy eating in anticipation of tryouts which began with the workshop this past February.”
Link said she wanted to be part of the Pats’ organization and the cheer squad because “aside from being a Patriots fan from a young age, The Kraft Organization is truly world class and something that is an absolute honor to be a part of. They place a large emphasis on qualities like working hard, helping others, and respect.”
Additionally, Link explained, “Something that doesn’t get as much attention as it should is the amount of community service that members of The Kraft Organization (including the Patriots players and the cheerleaders) participate in, it is truly unparalleled.”
Asked to speak about the process of becoming a Pats’ cheerleader, Link said the process began in February with an optional workshop. “This gives cheerleader hopefuls the chance to understand what it takes to be on the team, both in terms of dance ability and what the schedule the job requires,” said Link.
Then, the preliminary auditions were held in Gillette Stadium at the beginning of April. Link said this pulled in 200 potential candidates.
“The day began at 10 a.m. and ended around 6 p.m.,” said Link of the auditions. “We learned a variety of dance combinations and three rounds of cuts were made.”
Link then was selected as one of 40 new candidates who would advance to the April 19 finals.
“Inbetween,” said Link, “we had a one-on-one interview with the coach, Tracy Sormanti, and we learned additional choreography to be performed at finals.”
“At finals,” said Link, “the 40 new girls auditioned alongside the returning veteran cheerleaders and at the end of the day just under 40 girls total moved on to boot camp.”
Link said, “Boot camp lasted two weeks and involved learning a number of dance routines, cheers, and sideline dances, while also participating in media training, running the stadium ramps and workouts with the official Patriots Cheerleading trainer (and inventor of the workout regimen called BMAX), Andy Berler.”
Sometimes the reality of auditions differs from expectations. But Link said she had a pretty good idea of what was coming, especially after the workshop in February.
Between February and April, Link said, “The biggest areas I focused on for the audition process were improving my dancing, flexibility, and physical fitness through taking dance classes weekly and dedicating lots of time at the gym.”
With 200 women at the beginning of the auditions, Link said of the other competitors, “The ladies I met during the audition process all possess amazing qualities. The judges and coaches emphasized along the way that they look for candidates who are well-rounded and possess the values important to The Kraft Organization. This was so apparent in the women I met, not only were they trained dancers but they were smart, goal-oriented, motivated, and friendly. I met some really awesome ladies along the way and will stay in touch with many new friends.”
“The girls on the squad, both rookies and vets, are so extremely motivated,” said Link of her fellow teammates. “These girls are smart go-getters who each have hearts of gold. They form a sisterhood throughout the year and I can’t wait to get to know each of them better, both on and off the field.”
The selected cheerleaders were announced via the Pats’ website on May 3. But Link didn’t know right away she made the final cut.
“My mom actually called me with the news that the list had gone live; she said ‘I see a list, and you’re on it.’”
“Honestly,” said Link, “I’ve been on cloud 9 ever since and I don’t think I’ll come down anytime soon. It took a lot of work and dedication over the past couple of years but every ounce of it was worth it and I am so honored to have been chosen to be a member of The Kraft Organization and cheer for the Pats.”
And Link said she is fortunate to have the support of family and friends.
“I actually didn’t tell anyone I was trying out again with the exception of my immediate family and my roommates,” said Link. “I let the cat out of the bag to a few more folks after I made it past finals and was in boot camp and then made an announcement on Facebook after they announced the final team.”
“The outpouring of congratulations and support after the team was announced has been really heartwarming. I’m so happy to have made my family, friends, and community proud.”
Link’s day job has been in public relations. And she feels this will be an asset for the cheerleaders. “(It) has taught me how to communicate with people from all different walks of life. Just as I aim to represent my company in the best light each day, I’ll aim to represent The Kraft Organization to the best of my abilities as well. Working in public relations has reinforced that no matter if your meeting Patriots fans, volunteering for a charity, or cheering at a game, you can’t go wrong with having a smile on your face and being kind to each person you meet.”
As for what’s in store next for the Patriots’ newest cheerleader, Link said, “It’s been a whirlwind with practices and appearances having already started. We practice three times a week and have promotional appearances in between. Coming up fast is our calendar shoot in Cancun for a week in the beginning of June and we’ll be working hard in preparation for preseason which begins in August. I can’t wait to see what this year has in store.”
By MIKE CHAIKEN