By Claire Walla
To some, 15-year-old Rojdrefa Patterson is known as the girl who flips.
If you’ve been to a Pierson High School basketball games, you’ve probably seen it. In a black-and-red mini-skirt and knit top with the initials “PHS,” Patterson flips not once, not twice, but several times in rapid succession down the length of the wooden court. Sometimes she ends her impromptu routines with the splits, which she sinks into effortlessly, the way anyone else might sink into a chair.
Of course, acrobatics are nothing new for high school cheerleading, a sport which has garnered a respectable reputation in the sports world in the last few years.
But Patterson’s case is unique. Her talent comes not from cheer camp or gymnastics classes; she learned from watching YouTube clips, and by copying her Dad.
A native of the island of Jamaica — where gymnastics is a common form of physical education — Roj Patterson taught his daughter how to flip at a young age.
“The first time I tried to do a flip, I knocked my two front teeth out,” Patterson said with a grin. “I was four.”
Since then, Patterson has gone to Marine Park here in Sag Harbor to hone her skills. She’s taught herself how to do a front handspring, a double back handspring, a triple toe touch and even a back tuck. (The latter she even taught to her recently acquired gymnastics coach, a retired Level Ten gymnast, who was once captain of the Empire State Games.)
Last year, Patterson’s self-taught skills led her to victory at the annual Cheer for a Cure event held in Hampton Bays, where she walked away with Best Double Touch for the jumping sequence competition. Patterson recalled competing against girls who had had formal training.
By comparison, Patterson uses her 14-year-old brother as a spotter.
“One day, it was winter, and I was cold, but I was like: I don’t care, I’m going to do something really stupid,” Patterson remembered. Her brother had been spotting her as she attempted to complete a full back tuck, supporting her with his hand while in the air. “I told him to remove his hand… and I got it!”
Patterson came to Pierson as a freshman after graduating from Stella Maris in 2010. When she learned of the cheerleading team, she quickly got on board.
Again, she said inherent fearlessness lead the way.
“When I first started, I didn’t know how to do a flip on the wooden floor,” Patterson said. “So one day I just winged it, and I got it,” she continued nonchalantly. (Patterson did, however, also admit to having crossed her heart before she took the leap.)
Patterson’s self-taught acrobatics was something Anjela Krsikapa said she was shocked to discover.
At 25-years-old, Krsikapa is already a retired Level 10 gymnast (the highest possible ranking) and now teaches cheerleading and coaches gymnastics for the Ross School.
Krsikapa first saw “the girl who flips” when she went with her team to a Ross/Pierson basketball game last year. Although, it took her a year to figure out who she was.
While dining at Tapas in Bridgehampton recently, Krsikapa had a chance encounter with Patterson’s mother (unbeknownst to her at the time), who spoke of her cheerleading daughter, and showed video on her camera phone of Patterson propelling her body across half-court.
“Oh my God, I’ve been looking for that girl!” Krsikapa recalled. “Her mother told me that, by some miracle, that girl was all self-taught — I called her the very next day.”
Krsikapa said there is no one else like Patterson here on the East End. In fact, she said, it’s almost serendipitous she and Patterson should find each other.
As it so happens, Krsikapa first learned how to flip by watching her parents, for whom gymnastics was a routine part of physical education, as kids growing up in Montenegro.
“There’s a real lack of gymnastics out here,” Krsikapa explained.
But since she’s started the program at Ross, she said interest has been steadily increasing, adding that she’s noticed “a real demand for it.”
Krsikapa mostly works with younger kids who take gymnastics as an after-school activity and are still learning the basics. She said she’s thrilled to have found Rojdrefa.
With Krsikapa’s guidance, Patterson is learning how to do what she already does, but with proper form.
Patterson is essentially going back to basics, to learn the fundamentals of balance and form that Krsikapa said will prevent injuries in the future. She’s even had to learn how to stretch — that quick back bend she would do before a sequence of flips was just not cutting it.
(Before a cheerleading competition called Cheer for a Cure last year, for example, Patterson won several contests, including one for completing the most back handsprings in a row: 10. Not having stretched before the routine, Patterson said she woke up the next day and could barely get out of bed.)
Krsikapa has put a major emphasis on proper preparation.
“The first two weeks of practice I was just learning stretches,” Patterson exclaimed with wide-eyed emphasis. “I was so sore I was crying!”
According to Krsikapa, if Patterson continues to train, at the rate she will be able to compete as a Level 8 gymnast. In a nutshell, a Level 8 gymnast is one who can perform in all four events — balance beam, uneven bars, floor and vault — without a spotter, and bring some creativity to each routine.
Krsikapa said she could be ready for competition by the fall.
When asked where she gets the motivation and the courage try new stunts, Patterson said she likes to prove people wrong. (Sometimes her younger brother likes to wager what she can and can’t do.)
A self-proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Patterson continued, “I just put it in my mind that I can do this, and I do.”