Fly girl: Rookie Eagles cheerleader Michaelaann Guaracini

Eagles rookie cheerleader Michaelaann Guaracini performs while the Eagles play the Carolina Panthers in a preseason game on Thursday, August 15, 2013. (Yong Kim / Staff photographer)

CHEERLEADING isn't a sport and cheerleaders aren't athletes, right? Aren't they just a bunch of cute girls with hot bodies, shaking their butts and setting women back a hundred years by reinforcing gender stereotypes?

Personally, I find it puzzling to call cheerleading anything but a sport. It requires strength, stamina, coordination, gymnastic skills and the grace of a classical dancer.

It's hard work, baby.

To be a pro, you need intelligence, beauty and exceptional athleticism - plus dedication, determination and discipline.

Just ask Philadelphia Eagles cheerleader Michaelaann Guaracini. New to the 38-member squad, the 22-year-old Vineland, N.J., native was a cheerleader at Villanova University until she graduated last spring. She's now in graduate school at the Haub School of Business at St. Joseph's University - and achieving a long-sought goal in cheerleading, too.

"I always dreamed of becoming an Eagles cheerleader," Guaracini told me. Like many little girls, she studied ballet, tap and other dances. It was good practice for what was to come.

"The audition process was an intense two months," Guaracini said. "Four hundred girls try out, that gets cut to 60, and then the final [38] girls are selected. I was ecstatic when I received the message that I made the team!"

Now her typical day starts with a 5 a.m. workout at the gym. She usually begins with running, followed by strengthening and toning exercises for an overall fit physique. "Because I love to dance, Zumba is my favorite fitness class," she said.

With grad-school classes, an internship and cheerleading rehearsals, her days typically don't end until 10 p.m. "Working out in the morning gets my adrenaline going and I feel great," Guaracini said.

Triple threat

Aside from the obvious - an upbeat personality and a dogged work ethic - requirements to become an Eagles cheerleader include being at least 18 and a high-school graduate with top-notch modeling and dance skills. In short, women who can bring it!

"I'm looking for the girls with a real spark in their eyes. Girls that really have talent - triple threat, you know, speak well, dance well, etc.," said Dwayne Townsend, the squad's choreographer.

And, yes, you need to keep that spark going, because every year, cheerleaders have to audition to win their positions again.

As for their workouts, Townsend recommends that they concentrate on body-weight exercises like squats, lunges, leg raises and deadlifts.

"Their uniforms are formfitting, so in addition to legs, I recommend they do upper-body exercises with light weights [like 10 pounds] and perform high reps. And, of course, abs, abs, abs - crunch away," Townsend said.

He also counsels the squad to eat a high-protein/high-fiber diet, though Guaracini confesses to the occasional indulgence in her favorite treat, ice cream.

The cheerleaders routinely rehearse two to four times a week for three to four hours. And those rehearsals are mandatory! In addition to training, rehearsals and keeping up with new choreography, these young women face a rigorous schedule of 10 home games - two preseason and eight regular season, plus potential home playoff games. Collectively, the squad also does more than 350 appearances a year.

Are you wondering whether the cheerleaders get paid for all this work?

"The cheerleaders are part-time employees of the Philadelphia Eagles and are among the highest-paid cheerleaders in the NFL," said squad director Barbara Zaun. She declined to get more specific.

Guaracini described her cheerleading colleagues as a diverse group of young women of various ages and occupations - chemical engineers, teachers, nurses, doctors and aspiring MBAs like herself. "I'm an accounting major, so after graduate school I'm hoping to land a job with a major accounting firm," she said.

Donald Trump's Think Big: Make it Happen in Business and Life is her favorite book, and she's a firm believer that anything is possible with hard work and determination.

Now do you believe me that cheerleading is no cakewalk? Making the cut is just the beginning. Guaracini and her fellow Eagles cheerleaders are proof beyond a doubt that cheerleaders are extraordinary athletes - and amazing women.

Kimberly Garrison is a wellness coach and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia. Her column appears Wednesdays.