NEW ORLEANS — She hadn't done splits and high kicks since her cheerleading days in high school, but 40-year-old dance instructor Kriste Lewis set a lofty goal: to try out for the New Orleans Saints cheerleading squad, known as the Saintsations.
Faced with competition from women who mostly ranged in age from 18 to 28, Lewis never thought she'd make the team. And then, she did.
"I wanted to set a goal for myself, and the audition was a specific date that required specific training, so my goal was just to make it to the audition," said Lewis, who lives with her husband and two sons in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, about 100 miles northeast of New Orleans. "Honestly, I really did not think I was going to make it."
Lewis is one of only two NFL cheerleaders in her 40s, and she's the oldest to ever audition for the Saintsations, said Lesslee Fitzmorris, director of the squad since 2001. The other dancer is 45-year-old Laura Vikmanis, who has been with the Cincinnati Bengals dance team, the Ben-Gals, since making the squad at age 40.
"The applications hadn't been processed when the dance auditions started, so the judges didn't even know Kriste was 40 until she had made it through three rounds of cuts and revealed her age in the interview round," Fitzmorris said.
Something besides her age sets Lewis apart. A big part of her motivation was her will to make the most of every day since being diagnosed with a debilitating kidney disease that will eventually lead to dialysis treatments and the need for a kidney transplant. Several family members have died of the disease, and her mother has already undergone dialysis and a kidney transplant that her body twice rejected.
Lewis said she had to have her doctor's permission to join the 36-member Saintsations.
"I know my time is limited," Lewis said. "I don't want to let any time go. I want to make every day count."
Lewis will take the field with the Saintsations when the New Orleans Saints play their first exhibition game of the season Aug. 15 at the Superdome against the Tennessee Titans.
"I can't wait to get on that field," she said. "Just being able to put a cheerleading uniform back on and go at it for my favorite team is unbelievable to me, and I'm having a blast."