Coaches called her lazy.
Her parents worried she might have cancer.
Nikki Jennings found herself tired all the time, much more than a typical teenager. And when she slept, friends and family members had an incredibly difficult time waking her.
After falling asleep on the way to practices in Miami several years ago, Nikki’s mother Deb Jennings summoned cheerleading teammates, who would have to carry Nikki out of the car and into the gym.
“Doctors ran tests on her for leukemia and other blood diseases because her white blood cell count was really high,” Deb recalled. “We were really worried it was something serious.”
The South Fort Myers native was diagnosed in early 2016 with the sleeping disorder narcolepsy with cataplexy.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, narcolepsy is a disorder characterized by excessive sleepiness, sleep attacks, sleep paralysis, and occasional hallucinations. Cataplexy is a sudden loss of muscle control that can cause a person to collapse, slump over or slur words without much warning.
“I’d feel pretty lethargic, almost as if I had been stranded awake for 24 or 48 hours straight,” said Nikki, a 2019 Estero High graduate.
“Finding out (about the narcolepsy) was a big relief because at some points I was thinking ‘could this be cancer, could it be a brain tumor’” she recalled. “Once we found out what it was, that was the first step and we started learning how we could treat it.”
Because she’s grown so adept at managing her narcolepsy, she’s been able to follow her dreams of cheerleading at the highest levels of her sport – winning a world championship as part of the elite Georgia-based Stingray Allstar Steel team earlier this year and more recently earning an NCAA Division I scholarship to the University of Hawaii. When she steps on campus next month, she’ll join one of the top cheerleading programs in the nation, with the Warriors finishing in the Top 10 at the Universal Cheerleading Association’s national championships two of the last three years.
“At the University of Hawaii, cheerleaders are truly seen as athletes and I’m hoping more schools begin to view it like that as well,” Nikki said. “Joining a Division I program was something I always dreamed about, and I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather go to school.”
Upon receiving her narcolepsy diagnosis three years ago, Nikki altered what she ate and how she slept, moving to a Keto diet (very high fat, very low carbohydrates) and making sure she napped when she needed rest during the day. Dealing with the cataplexy is a bit trickier, as it’s often brought on by an emotional trigger such as excitement or laughter. That’s problematic in the world of competitive cheerleading, where pre-routine nerves are often prevalent.
“Before competitions, the cataplexy is often emphasized because of stress, so I have to do my best to take my mind off of things and not be as stressed, or else the emotion can often make me more tired. There have been times, right before going on stage where I feel my body weaken and I think ‘can I make it through this routine?’ and it becomes a mental game at that point, knowing that I have 37 other people on the floor with me that want me to do my job and I want to do my job, and over time, I’ve been able to combat it.”
Nikki said sometimes simply changing the subject is enough to fight off the oncoming cataplexy.
“A lot of it is just talking to someone, hopefully, I try to talk about something outside of the situation,” she said. “If we’re about to compete, I may ask one of my teammates ‘hey, after this do you want to go eat?’ or something like that. If it’s more of a physical thing, I do toe taps, jump up and down, do anything you might do if you were tired and doing that as long as I can before I go up there so I don’t have any crashes.”
She’s done such a great job keeping her condition in check, only those closest to her know about it. Roger Schonder, owner and coach of Stingray Allstars Marietta (Georgia), has coached Nikki the last two years and had no idea about her condition.
“First I’ve ever heard of it,” Schonder said. “You learn something new every day.”
What Schonder does know is the amount of work and dedication Nikki has shown to his program and her craft. When she first started working out with the Stingray Allstars, she wasn’t assured of competing on the team.
“We were full at the time but she really wanted to be a part of the team and practice with us,” Schonder recalled. “So, she and her mom drove up nine hours up and nine hours back each week, which showed me how dedicated she was and how much she was willing to work for a spot.”
As it turned out, an injury opened a spot on the competition team. She again made the squad this year, helping the Stingrays Allstar Steel team win a world title in April at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
“The best compliment I can give anyone is that they’re a super hard worker and super focused, and that’s exactly what she is,” Schonder said. “She’s very competitive and business-like, she’s not there to mess around. She’s also super intelligent and had that mindset of, “I’m here to do a job and I’m going to work as hard as I can to do that job.’ Give me the kids that are going to work hard every day over the ones that might have more raw talent, because the ones with the great work ethic are never satisfied. They’re always finding ways to improve.”