WATSONVILLE — Mackenzie Vojvoda thought it would happen at any moment. She thought her stomach would fill with butterflies. She thought she would start trembling a bit. She thought she might have trouble catching her breath.
But when the Watsonville High School alumna stepped foot on the field at the Oakland-Alameda Coliseum decked out in the iconic white boots and silver and black getup for the first time, none of that happened.
“I was waiting for my nerves to kick in, and I never got nervous,” Vojvoda said. “I was just overjoyed with excitement. I was just able to do what I love, and able to show so many people what I’ve worked so hard for.”
The 23-year-old Watsonville native beat out nearly 300 women to earn a spot on the Oakland Raiderettes, the Oakland Raiders’ cheerleading squad. And as she was living out a longtime dream in cheering for her childhood team, she never had to take a second to pinch herself to make sure it was all real.
“I felt like ‘I’m at home,’” she said. “I felt like it’s right. I didn’t feel like ‘I can’t believe it.’ I felt like I belonged there.”
After six years of trials and tribulations, most of those nerves were gone.
FUEL TO THE FIRE
Vojvoda was only 18 when she tried out for her first professional team.
She made the six-hour drive to Los Angeles with her mother, Natalie Vojvoda, to audition for the Lakers. It took her three hours to get ready, and she waited in line for another hour. She was part of the first cut, five minutes into the audition.
That harsh experience served as a sobering moment.
“I knew if I wanted to do this, if I really wanted it,” Vojvoda said, “I needed to take it serious.”
Vojvoda had participated in cheerleading throughout her youth, but quickly realized that professional cheerleading was a very different beast. Where high school cheer was based in sharp stunts, cheer at the professional level was heavy in dance. Vojvoda wasn’t born with two left feet, but she had never taken formal dance lessons.
When she returned to Watsonville, she signed up for every dance class available at Cabrillo College, and when she reached her class limits she bounced over to San Jose City College to take more.
Vojvoda said her dancing was improving at a fast pace, but not fast enough to stop the flurry of rejections she endured over the last six years. She auditioned for every pro team in the state in that time. The Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Sacramento Kings and San Francisco 49ers all told her no.
She twice made the Raiderettes’ finals and heard “no” both times before making the team this fall.
“The third time was the charm,” she said.
She said every rejection only made her work harder.
“I didn’t let it break me down,” Vojvoda said. “You get told no so many times that you can start telling yourself, ‘well, maybe I’m just not good enough,’ or ‘maybe it’s not for me,’ but if your heart’s in it, then that’s what you need to go chase. Once you lose your love for it, then that’s when you move on, but I never lost my fire and desire.”
Vojvoda said she leaned on family for support and advice through the tough times. All five family members did their part. Her father, Kirt, was the steadying voice always telling her to try her hardest. Her brother, Austin, helped keep the fire alive by reminding her how good she was. Her other brother, Drew, continuously reminded her to make sure she was doing cheer for the right reasons. And Natalie was her “backbone.”
“All of them, together, is what I needed to keep on pushing,” Vojvoda said.
Natalie said her daughter’s resolve over the last six years was inspiring.
“I can’t imagine what she went through,” she said. “It’s tough enough to audition for a high school team — to put yourself out there to be scrutinized and possibly hear ‘no.’ She had the will to keep trying, and keep trying, and keep trying, even though she knew the answer might be no…She inspired me. She kept working.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Vojvoda began cheering at 7. Natalie, who cheered during her time at Watsonville High School, said she tried to sign her daughter up for dance classes, but Vojvoda cried whenever she was separated from her mother.
“She would throw a fit as a kid,” Natalie said. “She really didn’t like being away from me.”
But when Austin tried out for the Jr. Wildcatz youth football team, Natalie signed up Vojvoda for the cheer team, hoping that her brother’s presence would put her at ease and allow her to be part of a team.
Since then, football has been a family affair.
“[Football] really brought the family together,” Kirt said.
One could argue that football has always been a through line for Vojvoda.
The first cheerleaders she ever laid eyes on were the Raiderettes. Her late grandfather, Mike Burt, had a giant poster of the team in his “Raiders cave” along side other posters of the team’s greats like Dave Casper, Ken Stabler, John Madden and Jack Tatum.
Burt passed down his love for the Raiders to Kirt, and Kirt did the same to his three kids. Kirt said he would have been happy if his daughter made any cheer team, but…
“Deep down inside, dad was hoping the Raiderettes were it,” Kirt said. “That was icing on the cake.”
MAKING PEOPLE HAPPY
Professional cheerleaders don’t make the same money as the players, so all of the members of the team are either in college, have full-time gigs or both.
When she’s not practicing three times a week, or revving up Raider Nation on game days, Vojvoda works at Lululemon and teaches yoga while also taking college courses. She recently completed her associate’s degree in health science, and has plans of applying to nursing programs this fall.
She said she chose nursing for the same reason she wanted to be a Raiderette: “I love putting a smile on peoples’ faces.”
Balancing professional cheer, two jobs and school won’t be easy. But she said she’ll keep the same mindset she has had over the last six years.
“Don’t give up,” Vojvoda said. “Perseverance pays off. You don’t really understand that until it actually happens to you.”