Louise Gooche smiled as she led the small group in a cheer routine. A gold medal dangled around her neck as she kicked her legs and raised her arms into the air.
Two, four, six, eight, who do you appreciate?
Senior Games! Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!
Gooche, 73, is captain of the Durham Seniors Divas ’N Dudes senior cheer-leading squad. She’s no stranger to medals. The group regularly competes in the N.C. Senior Games and has won first place in eight out of the past 10 competitions. But this awards ceremony was different.
“It says to me, you can do whatever it is you want to do if you fight for it,” she said.
Minutes after Gooche spoke about the importance of healthy living July 28 at the Humana Center in Raleigh, Humana N.C. Director Patrick Farley awarded her the health insurance company’s “Game Changer” award “for her dedication to improving the well-being of others and making a difference in the community.”
“She has overcome personal and medical challenges,” said Farley, who has known Gooche for years. “(She is) very motivating and inspiring.”
One challenge was a battle with colon cancer in 2002. At one time, complications kept her in the hospital for 23 days. Gooche underwent surgery and six months of chemotherapy before doctors declared her cancer-free in 2004.
During chemotherapy, she would walk and do aerobics at the Downtown Durham YMCA.
“I used to say to myself, ‘Cancer is not gonna take me out like this,’” she said.
Gooche said surviving cancer gave her a new perspective on life.
“When you almost die, little things that bothered you, they don’t bother me anymore,” she said. “I love life; I love people.”
Just two years later, Gooche founded the Durham Senior Divas ’N Dudes after attending a conference in February 2004 that featured senior cheerleaders as the entertainment.
“I was like ‘AHA!’” she said. “We can do that, too.”
The next day, Gooche posted a sign-up sheet at the YMCA to see who wanted to join a senior cheer-leading squad. By the end of the day, she had nine ladies sign up.
“We only knew it was cute and we wanted to do it,” Gooche said.
Gooche had always wanted to be a cheerleader, she said. Though she was “never really into athletics,” her love for drama had always drawn her to cheerleading.
“I love acting, and I love audiences,” Gooche said. “My athletic contribution is my mouth.”
She didn’t become a cheerleader until she founded the Durham Senior Divas ’N Dudes. In high school, tryouts were always after school, and Gooche had to catch the bus to get home.
She “tucked the idea away” as she pursued nursing in college. She became a registered nurse and was director of nursing at Durham Technical Community College for 31 years, retiring in 2001.
After the conference in 2004, Gooche said “it all came back.”
“I thought, ‘I have the time and energy,’” she said. “I’m gonna do it.”
The Downtown Durham YMCA provides uniforms, pom-poms, funding and facilities for the group, which has since grown in popularity and size.
For the first two years, the group had only female members. In 2006, the first man joined the group after Gooche convinced him to give it a try.
“I knew that he liked to dance, and I felt that he needed to be doing something,” she said. “He worked out quite well with us.”
Today, members range in age from 62 to 79. The group, made up of 14 women and one man, hasn’t managed to increase the number of men in its ranks, though Gooche said, “We would love it.”
“They may fear that they can’t keep up with the fast moves,” she joked.
Last month, they performed at halftime of a senior basketball game in Durham which raised money for charity. Gooche said she has turned down an offer from NASCAR for the group to be featured as entertainment, as well as an invitation to try out for “America’s Got Talent.”
“We do this just for fun,” she said.
The group performs a variety of cheers at their events. But Gooche hopes the message that audiences hear the loudest is that healthy living is important, especially as you age.
“Anyone can go home and retire in front of a TV,” she said. “Things slow down, so we have to keep moving.”