Making the Dream – Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Zhenya Kolpakova Overcomes All Odds

Making the Dream – Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader Zhenya Kolpakova Overcomes All Odds

From Ukraine to Dallas – How It Started

The action doesn’t start at AT&T Stadium until the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders take the field. Donning those iconic white boots, blue blouse and white vest with its trademark stars and fringe, and performing in the unmistakable DCC supersuit as they say, is something many dancers dream of doing. With hundreds of candidates auditioning each season from across the country and around the world and traditionally only 36 women chosen for the final team, the competition is undeniably fierce. For Zhenya Kolpakova, it was a dream she shared with so many and a dream that almost didn’t happen.

The Ukrainian native actually got her start in the performing arts through rhythmic gymnastics. But after moving to the United States with her mother and sister at the age of 12, she discovered a new passion.

Zhenya was looking for additional credits to take at her new school when someone suggested she sign up for the drill team. With classes starting in just a week, the team had already been announced. However, Zhenya enquired anyway with the hope of getting a spot on the team the following year. 

“I walked into the locker room and my drill team director at the time looked at me and said, ‘Can you do the splits?’ I did all three splits and she said ‘You’re on the team!” That is how I started my dance journey in the United States!”

It wasn’t until many years later that the thought of becoming a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader first crossed Zhenya’s mind. In fact, an old friend from the drill team was planning to try out and convinced Zhenya to come with her. A college student at Texas A&M at the time, Zhenya had a lot of fun at tryouts but knew it wasn’t her time quite yet. “I told myself, ‘One day I’ll come back,’” she said.

Fast forward nearly a decade. Zhenya had spent four years refining her craft at the Urban Performing Dance Company under the direction of Stephen “Stevo” McMaryion. She was living in Dallas with her soon-to-be-husband Preston, processing the war that had just begun in her homeland, and determining what the next step in life would be. DCC was definitely on her mind, but the war in Ukraine weighed heavily on her heart.

That’s when a conversation with her grandmother back in Ukraine changed everything. 

“She told me that you can’t live life with regrets,” Zhenya said. “She said, ‘It doesn’t matter what is happening over here, you still have a full life ahead of you and it doesn’t make you any less of a loving granddaughter or person if you pursue the things that you’re passionate about.’”

Zhenya describes her grandmother as the kind of person who doesn’t live life with regrets. With a PhD in her back pocket and a karate black belt (which she obtained in her 50s), Zhenya knew her grandmother was living proof that age is just a number and no dream is too big. 

So, at the age of 30, Zhenya tried out for DCC. She made it to the second round of auditions the same day her sister graduated from Texas A&M. It was a day worth celebrating. Until the unthinkable happened. 

The Day Everything Changed

Sitting around the campfire, toasting marshmallows to make s’mores – what happened next is something Zhenya describes as a freak accident. A log in the fire shifted, causing a ball of fire to fly straight at Zhenya. 

“My mom and my fiance took off their clothes and tried to put out my face and neck first but the fire continued to burn on my legs,” Zhenya recalled. “I don’t even know how to describe the pain. It honestly feels like you are in an oven and you can’t escape. I 100% thought I was going to die in that moment.”

But she didn’t. Laying in the cold tub waiting for the ambulance to arrive, Zhenya immediately shifted gears. “The first thing I said to Preston was, ‘How am I going to dance tomorrow?’ His heart was breaking for me because he knew how much achieving this goal meant to me. He said, ‘I will help you make it happen.’” 

Zhenya was transferred to the burn unit at Parkland Hospital in Dallas where she stayed for a week. Doctors cleaned her wounds multiple times a day to avoid infection. Preston got busy making phone calls. 

“I’m honestly here because of the DCC staff that were so generous and so understanding, but also because of him,” Zhenya said. “He reached out to people on Instagram that had connections to DCC, he called people everyday. I would watch him walking around the hospital having these conversations. Without him I wouldn’t have made it through the DCC process.”

With severe burns on her legs, Zhenya had to re-learn how to walk and move her limbs through lots of physical therapy. With the final round of DCC auditions looming, Zhenya was given the choice of deferring and rejoining where she left off the following year, but she was determined to push through.

“Not giving up takes a lot of willpower because when you do something you love and then it gets taken away from you and you don’t know if you will ever be able to do the thing that you love again, it’s heartbreaking,” Zhenya said. “You also lose a little bit of yourself and have to try to find that person again and not let this stop me.”

For Zhenya, dance is a form of therapy; allowing her to express her emotions through movement. It’s reliable and deeply personal.

“Other people go to the gym and take their frustration out when lifting weights,” she said. “To me, dance lets me express the feelings I feel or the stresses that I go through. Nothing in my life does that like dance does for me. It’s almost like a private conversation with myself when I dance. It lets me process things and accept everything that happens. It’s a very emotional hobby for me, but it’s a very dear one because nothing else quite hits like dance does.” 

A Dream Reimagined 

Luckily for Zhenya, positive news was on the horizon. Just four weeks after the accident and four days before the final round of auditions, Zhenya was cleared by medical staff to participate in the final round of tryouts. With intricate choreography, numerous dances and a solo to learn, plus a costume to pull together, she had to move quickly. Zhenya solicited the help of a former DCC to help her create her solo while her mother got to work on the costume. 

“She’s an amazing seamstress so she came over to sew and bedazzle the costume for the solo four days beforehand,” Zhenya said. “She was up until like 2 a.m. finishing it for me, so it was a team effort! It was a whole village that helped me prep for these finals!” 

Bandaged up but ready to fight, Zhenya showed up in person for the final round of auditions. It was a demonstration in both extraordinary courage and grace – her bandages revealing what she’d been through but also how she wasn’t going to let anything stop her. In so many ways she had already won. Still, she was determined to do everything possible to make her dream come true. Due to the extent of the burns, her mobility was limited. The infamous DCC jump splits and hitting a passe position were not possible at first, but the DCC staff recognized Zhenya’s potential and truly trusted her prior dance experience.

In August 2022, what was already a life-altering experience and what could have been a career-ending accident turned into the ultimate dream. Zhenya made the team. 

“I thought it wasn’t real,” Zhenya said. “I think that was the first thought that crossed my mind. It was honestly unbelievable. I think sometimes you get so caught up in getting to the finish line that when the finish line gets there, you can’t believe that you made it. It’s this euphoric feeling but at the same time, you’re feeling like, ‘Is this real?’ 

Calling her family to give them the good news, including her grandmother back in Ukraine, was an emotional moment for Zhenya. . 

“They were crying, I was crying, and it was a very happy moment for everyone,” she said. “It meant so much more to us than just making the team. It meant being a part of something and achieving this goal and having the faith in myself that I could do something like this. It was a multi-layered achievement.” 

Taking the Field

Walking through the tunnel and onto the field in uniform for the first time is a moment every rookie DCC never forgets, and for Zhenya it was overwhelming. She found her mother in the crowd. She fought back tears and she processed her dream becoming reality. She was hit with a wave of gratitude for her family and friends for inspiring her and helping her to stay strong, as well as to her DCC teammates who were with her every step of the way. 

“I would not have made it through the season without the girls on the team,” she said. “When the season started and all the feelings that I had been holding in since the accident hit me. It was some of the girls on the team that really helped me process everything and not feel so down on myself… I was just feeling like I wasn’t doing the best I could at all aspects of my life because I had a full time job and everything that’s going on with my family in Ukraine. I was trying to appease as many people as I could and be there for everybody, that I think sometimes I forgot to be there for myself. It was the girls on the team and my close friends outside of the team that helped me feel better about that situation.”

Nearly a year ago as she layed in the bathtub assessing her burns, becoming a Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader and being a part of the legacy and sisterhood felt like a dream ended. But if there is any lesson to be learned from Zhenya Kolpakova it’s to never give up. Ever

“Sometimes I did start to feel a little sorry for the situation, but then I remembered that feeling sorry didn’t get me anywhere and I needed to change how I thought about the situation,” Zhenya said. “I can’t change the past but I can change how I react to it and how I’m going to present myself and how I’m going to shape my future. Life is what you make it!”

2023-24 Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders Auditions begin online, May 2-12!

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