By Todd Travis
If you’re an Indianapolis Colts fan you might be feeling bitter after a season-ending loss that bumped the team out of the playoffs. It was especially disappointing after some shining moments that gave fans hope for a Super Bowl run. In fact, the Colts football team led the NFL with seven Pro Bowl selections. But in the wake of this loss emerged a story of hope and triumph over adversity. A story that Indianapolis can be truly proud of. One that goes beyond football.
It was an emotional moment when Indianapolis Colts Cheerleader Vanessa Wahl was awarded the 2022 Pro Bowl selection. On the big screen at Lucas Oil Stadium, her mother Hannah Mueller surprised her and announced to everyone that she had been chosen for this award. This was a much-needed piece of good news for Wahl and her mom as well. Wahl had been dealing with the loss of her dad Jason Mueller to colon cancer earlier in the year. Jason, a Center Grove graduate and elementary school teacher, served as announcer for CGHS football games. Wahl questioned whether she should even be on the team during this tough time. Her coaches encouraged her to audition and allow the Colts Cheer community to support her as she dealt with this difficult circumstance. “I am so grateful that I did,” Wahl said. “There’s no way I would have been able to get through that without the team.” Wahl’s story is a shining example of how the Colts organization has impact beyond the field.
A passion for dance
Wahl grew up in Greenwood and went to Center Grove Schools from K-12. She started dancing at Stage 1 Dance Academy where her mom was the artistic director. She was also on the CGHS dance team before going to IU as a dance major and finishing her studies at IUPUI. After spending some time in Los Angeles pursuing her dance career, she decided she wanted to be back in Indianapolis near her family. Her mom suggested she audition for the Colts Cheerleading team.
Wahl was initially hesitant toward the idea of being a Colts Cheerleader because she wasn’t sure it would challenge her dancing. “Boy, was I wrong,” she admitted. After her first prep class with the Colts her tune changed. “I could not walk the next day. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. The sessions would last anywhere from three to four hours consisting of dance training followed by a full workout. This ended up being exactly the challenge Vanessa was looking for. “I wanted to be pushed to my limits … so I kept showing up,” she recounted. She went on to make the team on her first audition, which is no small accomplishment.
A connection with the local Deaf community
In her first year with the Colts, Vanessa learned that the team required much more than just high performing cheer and dance. She learned it was about helping the community and improving as a person. She felt especially connected to the Deaf community because of a chance interaction with a young fan. She had taken sign language courses in college and was able to communicate with a young boy who was there to have a poster signed. He was so excited that she could understand him that he brought his sibling and mother back up to meet her. “It was a moment that made me realize that this is so much bigger than our organization; it’s for this entire community,” Wahl recalled. Knowing that Indianapolis has a well-known school for the Deaf she decided to improve her signing abilities. The Colts organization covered the tuition for her to take more signing classes, allowing her to continue to connect with local fans who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
It’s no surprise that Wahl was chosen by her peers to be the Colts’ representative at the upcoming Pro Bowl in Las Vegas. After all, the selection goes beyond being a great cheerleader. It is based on experience and leadership and having earned respect and admiration from teammates. It would have been easy to give up considering everything that Wahl had been through. But she kept her mind focused on her goals. And she dedicated her hard work to her dad, who was not related by blood but that didn’t matter to either of them. “When I got tired during games, I’d tell myself, ‘you’re not just doing this for yourself … you’re doing this for his body as well,'” Wahl said.
You won’t have the Colts football team to cheer for in the playoffs this year or in the Super Bowl. But you can cheer for Vanessa Wahl. Her journey will continue as she prepares for the Pro Bowl and as she takes the next steps in her life. And the Colts organization will continue to impact Indianapolis both on and off the field. And when you see your Colts Cheerleaders in the future remember Vanessa’s words: “We’re here for more than just the pom-poms.”