NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Natives of Japan, Titans rookie cheerleaders Sayuri and Mari recently had their wildest dreams come true. On the night of May 3, 2017, both earned spots as Titans cheerleaders following outstanding performances at the Wildhorse Saloon.
"When I watched a Titans cheerleading final audition video three years ago, I was crying over how engaged I felt with each of the candidates," Mari said when asked how she chose the Titans as her favorite cheerleading team while residing in her homeland. "It was the biggest dream in my life to join that team."
While the Japan offers professional cheerleading opportunities, to these women, nothing compared to the prestige of performing in the NFL. Women who plan to cross the Pacific to audition for an NFL team must make immense personal sacrifices in hopes of one day making it in the National Football League.
Each year 10-20 Japanese cheerleaders come to the United States in hopes of becoming an NFL cheerleader, Sayuri said. It takes time -- two weeks, to two months depending on the team – and money (over $10,000 for airfare, hotel accommodations and attorney's fees for a VISA application).
"It's a big commitment for us," Sayuri said. "Most women will quit their job just to have the chance to attend one NFL audition."
Even with up to 20 women traveling across the world to audition each year, only nine Japanese cheerleaders are currently on 2017 NFL rosters, including two with the Titans.
Mari and Sayuri both knew they could only audition for one NFL team, and after much deliberation, both selected the Titans. Each of them had been training for over 10 years for one shot at their dream.
For Sayuri, choosing the Titans was years in the making. She was a guest Japanese cheerleader at the 2008 Pro Bowl, where she met Titans Pro Bowl cheerleader, Valerie. "She became my role model," Sayuri said.
Since 2008, Sayuri visited six NFL teams, finally attending a Titans game in 2016. Watching Titans cheerleaders perform at Nissan Stadium confirmed Nashville was her destination of choice.
Once becoming Titans cheerleaders, both Mari and Sayuri had to immediately apply for United States work VISAs, find housing, learn English and navigate American culture, all while not missing a beat at cheerleading practice.
"America and Japan are different in a lot of ways -- language, culture, and more," explained Mari. "I also do not have family here. That was the hardest part. But my Titans family and friends have helped support me. I am so thankful for my teammates."
Amidst all of the changes they were facing in the United States, their new occupations caused major changes for them in Japan as well. "NFL cheerleaders are celebrity figures in Japan," said Sayuri. "When NFL cheerleaders travel back to Japan, they are all over TV shows and other media outlets."
But for now, they're performing for Titans fans on game days, while serving as ambassadors in Japan and in the greater Nashville community. After all, performing in front of 69,000 Titans fans is nothing compared to an entire country watching you.
"It has been an incredible opportunity to have Sayuri and Mari join our team," said Titans Director of Cheer and Mascot Entertainment, Stacie Kinder. "Not only are they talented and beautiful, but we have learned so much from them and opened our fan base to quite literally, a whole new world!"
Titans cheerleaders start annual photo shoot at Fall Creek Falls state park in Spencer, Tenn. (Photos: Jeb Johnston)
Titans cheerleaders continue their annual photo shoot at Radnor Lake State Park in Nashville, Tenn. (Photos: Jeb Johnston)
Titans cheerleaders continue their annual photo shoot at Montgomery Bell State Park and Harpeth River State Park in Nashville, Tenn. (Photos: Amie Wells)
Titans cheerleaders take the field for the team's Week 6 game against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football at Nissan Stadium. (Photos: Donn Jones Photography)