Oct. 18, 2013
By Michael Kasiborski
If you looked out at midfield following Michigan football's recent 42-13 homecoming win over Minnesota, you saw Jake Ryan grab the Little Brown Jug from Taylor Lewan and raise it over his head. The Jug was staying in Ann Arbor for another year, being passed from player to player. Others rushed in, simply to get their hand on the Jug. They scurried up the tunnel to take Michigan's oldest trophy into the locker room. The celebration was on; another chapter in the storied tale of Michigan-Minnesota football was closed on this Homecoming Saturday.
And if your eyes returned to midfield, you saw another celebration unfolding. This one was every bit as enthusiastic, but with a few more tears.
It may have looked like three Michigan cheerleaders celebrating a big win in the Big Ten opener. The truth was, it did look like that. But it was so much more. The first trio of sisters to cheerlead at Michigan basked in the moment of being on the field together.
While this story unfolded in Michigan Stadium, its roots are farther north on US-23, and a bit west on I-96 in East Lansing, Mich.
Jessica Gelov from Carmel, Ind., was visiting Michigan State University in the fall of 2008 to check out the school. She had already been accepted and had a meeting with the cheer coach -- she had always wanted to cheer in college. But something just did not feel right about her visit there. Someone on the trip -- maybe her mom, maybe her sister -- suggested they swing through Ann Arbor. After all, it was a five-hour trip back home from East Lansing and a detour to Ann Arbor was only sort of out of the way. Jessica heard Michigan had a pretty campus. That was about all she knew when the pointed the car toward U-M.
So Jessica, along with her younger sister, Cassandra, and parents, Angie and Ted, walked around campus, stopping in the Union and walking across the Diag to discover Michigan. The Gelovs were a Purdue household; both Angie and Ted went to college in West Lafayette, Ind. But Jessica, the oldest Gelov child, was not going to be a Boilermaker.
"I actually cried when I stepped on campus for the first time, which is really embarrassing," she freely admits. "Right away I knew it was definitely where I wanted to be."
She had barely spent any time in Ann Arbor when it hit her: "I felt like it was going to be home for me."
Jessica got into Michigan, tried out for the cheerleading team and made it. Life was good. She was home.
Cassandra Gelov was part of that impromptu visit to Michigan. Two years younger than Jessica, their relative closeness in age and affinity for similar activities set up a good-natured sibling rivalry.
They started gymnastics together as small children, pushing each other to excel. They eventually switched to cheerleading and both cheered for Carmel High School. Jessica made varsity as a freshman, so naturally, Cassandra had to prove she could, too. And she did.
"I was trying to force myself to go somewhere else for college so badly because I didn't want to feel like I was following in her footsteps," Cassandra recounted.
But she had watched Jessica soar at Michigan, and the gravitational pull was simply too strong.
From L: Jessica, Hanna, Cassandra
"When I came on campus I just started crying -- it was like a weird feeling," she said. "I finally realized that I wanted to be here and I started crying."
Cassandra even had to try to outcry Jessica.
"I've kind of been in this pattern of following her, but I think that's because she makes really good decisions," Cassandra states matter-of-factly.
Cassandra, like Jessica, wanted to cheer in college. In 2011, Jessica was trying out for her third season with the team (cheerleaders tryout every year) when Cassandra tried out for the first time.
"I was so nervous. Jessica was trying out again and we were standing next to each because it goes by last name," she said. "It was really good because Jessica would tell me not to worry and just encourage me."
It turns out that Cassandra had nothing to worry about. She made the team and became the second Gelov sister to don the Maize and Blue.
"When she was in the tunnel for the first time, we both cried and gave each other hugs," Jessica said. "It was something we dreamed about growing up and now it was happening for real."
The Gelovs experienced the first "Under the Lights" game against Notre Dame together on the sidelines, a thrilling come-from-behind win for the Wolverines. "The first Notre Dame night game was probably the top moment of my life," Cassandra said.
They were also a part of Michigan's first national championship cheer team. The squad won its division at the National Cheerleaders Association national championship in Daytona Beach, Fla., in April 2013.
For Jessica, it further demonstrated the confidence and ability of her little sister. Both Gelov sisters were flyers during their national championship routine (flyers do exactly that during stunts, they are thrown into the air and fly).
"I had always doubted myself in terms of my flying ability," said Jessica. "I don't think I could have done it without Cassandra. Right before we went on she told me 'I'm here fighting with you, you can do it -- stay up in the air.' It was great to see her drive and the way she attacks fear. That helped me through that routine."
And it helped Michigan land its first NCA national championship.
Younger sister Hanna Gelov spent her autumn Saturdays in the car with her parents driving to-and-from Ann Arbor. When they were not in the car, they were at Michigan football games scoping out the sidelines for their two favorite cheerleaders.
But when she returned to Carmel for the other six days of the week, she did not suit up to cheer on the Carmel Greyhounds like her sisters did before her. No, instead she cheered for Guerin Catholic High School.
"I really liked (Guerin) when I went to visit it, so I decided to break that mold," says Hanna.
One mold she kept intact? Michigan.
"I went to a different high school, so it was definitely my own decision to come to Michigan. I just happened to fall in line with them," she says. "Michigan has always been the place I wanted to go."
Like Cassandra before her, and like Jessica before Cassandra, Hanna not only wanted to go to school at Michigan, she wanted to cheer for Michigan.
At Hanna's tryout this past April, Cassandra was also trying out for her third season on the team. Jessica was still on the team -- although she would be graduating in a matter of weeks -- so she was acting as judge. Naturally, she had to recuse herself when the Gelov sisters lined up next to each other to perform.
"I just couldn't stop smiling when they tried out this year," said Jessica. "I tried to play it cool but I was just too excited."
"It was kind of comforting having Jessica in the room," said Cassandra. "She would look at us and you could kind of tell she was tearing up, she was so proud of us."
"It was scary, because I'm the third one -- what if I don't make it?" Hanna said. "It was pretty nerve-wracking, but my sister (Cassandra) and I stood next to each other. I had never been in that setting with her where we've been on the same team."
When the team was posted that night, it included two Gelovs, just like it had for the past two seasons.
"We were all screaming. I called my sisters and we were all freaking out," said Hanna. It would be the first time she was on a cheer team with one of her sisters.
A few weeks later Jessica stepped off campus as a Michigan graduate. A few months after that Hanna would step onto campus as a freshman. Cassandra now stepped into the role of big sister.
"I definitely think she's harder on me," Hanna said about Cassandra. "She'll pull me aside and say stuff to me that I know she'd never say to anyone else. She wants me to work my butt off."
"I push her harder because I want her to do really well," Cassandra said. "I'm more aggressive in the things I say to her. I was like that with Jessica, too. If she would get nervous I'd say 'You're being a baby, just go' and I would not ever say that to another teammate. It's easier to say to a sister."
From L: Hanna, Jessica, Cassandra
Cassandra and Hanna cheered together for the first time on Aug. 31 at the Michigan-Central Michigan game.
"In the tunnel, my sister came up to me and hugged me. We both started to tear up because it was so cool," said Hanna. "Then the band starts playing in the tunnel and we got so pumped."
The sisters cheered together during the second edition of "Under the Lights" against Notre Dame. And Jessica, working back in Carmel now, has returned to Ann Arbor a few times to watch her first games from the stands, and keep an eye on her little sisters on the sidelines.
On Jessica's most recent visit back to Ann Arbor she joined her sisters on the field for homecoming. Three Gelov sisters all on the sidelines together.
"Michigan is about tradition and hard work," said head cheer coach Pam St. John. "The three Gelov sisters -- while different in their own right -- are all exceptional examples of young women committed to something greater than themselves."
"I'd look over at one sister and then over at the other and we were all doing the same thing -- it was so cool," said Hanna. "We all realized that we're going to share this for the rest of our lives. We'll all come back for homecoming games and still be cheering."
After the clock hit zero and equipment manager Jon Falk unveiled the Little Brown Jug, after Ryan snatched it from Lewan and after the captains ran with it up the tunnel, another celebration broke out at midfield.
Three Gelov sisters -- the first trio of sisters to cheer for Michigan -- gathered for a few more pictures and, as you could probably guess, a few more tears.
"We're so fortunate that we've all been able to come to this university and that our parents can provide that for us financially," said Cassandra. "We get to share cheerleading together, we'll have that forever."
By the way, there is a fourth Gelov. His name is Christian and he is planning on enrolling at U-M in about six years. No word on if he is practicing his backflips yet.
Jessica (U-M '13) is currently working as an associate brand manager for Heartland Food Products Group. Cassandra is enrolled in the Ross School of Business with a focus on marketing. Hanna is enrolled in the School of Nursing.