When Leeah Justman and Jenna Riche met at the University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh they had an instant connection… dance! Both had taken lessons most of their lives and now competed for the UWO Dance Team. It is a sport sidelined by the pandemic in 2018 and 2020. Their dreams of dancing at nationals had been dashed. Riche remembers, ”It was so incredibly heartbreaking for our team. COVID had sent us home right before nationals.” The seniors and juniors graduated and were not coming back, no chance to dance one final time.
The team would regroup in 2021 with one big difference. It was almost a completely brand-new team and most had never competed for UWO. They used the pandemic as motivation. They wanted redemption and a shot at nationals, so they spent months and months preparing. For the first time in two years this team would represent UW-Oshkosh at the National Dance Alliance College Championship in Daytona Beach, Florida.
Justman recalls what it was like backstage, “Before we went on the floor, we definitely talked about dancing for those people who didn’t get that last performance. When you hit that first pose and you’re about ready, you take that nice deep breath. And as, as soon as the music starts, you just go for it.” And go for it they did. Dancing for themselves, dancing for their former teammates and dancing for a national title. Riche said, “Those last 15 seconds I could feel the tears start to swell in my eyes because I was so grateful for the opportunity to be able to do this for so long and love it so much.”
Now, it would be up to the panel of judges. The team felt like they put their best performance on the floor. After announcing third place and second place, there was only one team left. The University of Wisconsin Oshkosh had captured its first national title in poms and took third place with their jazz routine. Justman felt relief, “Going into this year, we were never expecting to win. I think after working for 18 years towards this big goal, it was just so fulfilling.” Riche added, “It makes it feel like all the years and the hard times and the good times and everything in between was worth it.”