The Super Bowl 50 experience: Q&A with Samantha Freels and Lena Biafora, Panthers TopCat Cheerleaders
Two recent graduates from West Virginia University’s College of Business and Economics recently got the chance of a lifetime – to take part in Super Bowl 50 at Levi Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Samantha Freels, a 2012 graduate in international business management, and Lena Biafora, a 2015 graduate in business management, both cheered on the Carolina Panthers as dancers on the Panthers TopCats team all year – and the cherry on top of a fantastic season was a trip to perform at the big game.
Freels and Biafora are Morgantown natives, having graduated from University High School in 2008 and 2011, respectively, with strong dance backgrounds. As former members of the WVU Dance Team for several years, the women were well-trained in what it took to be an NFL cheerleader.
Both live in Charlotte, North Carolina; Freels is currently working as an account manager for a data security software company, and Biafora is working as a real estate agent. Biafora is also working toward an MBA at Queens University of Charlotte.
While it was Freels’ second year as a TopCat, Biafora was a rookie member to the team. The two took some time to answer our questions below:
What is your favorite part about being a member of the TopCats?
SF: What I love about being a TopCat that is unique from any other dance experience is the level of community involvement. Even more than showing up on game day to dance and cheer on our team, we are ambassadors for the incredible Panthers organization that prides itself in community outreach and philanthropy. There’s nothing in the world like doing what you love at this level and also having the feeling that you are making a difference.
LB: For me, appearances are my favorite part of being a TopCat, mostly because of the joy we see on the faces of those in attendance. It doesn’t matter if we are visiting with senior citizens at a nursing home or signing autographs for young children, the smiles and excitement make our jobs worth the hard work!
What does the TopCats team do behind-the-scenes that people may not know about?
SF: In addition to countless hours of service with organizations such as Make-A-Wish and Play60, each girl has a full-time job or is a full-time student. We have a squad full of not only beautiful and kind but incredibly smart and dedicated women! From nurses to teachers to business professionals, we are all incredibly committed to both our careers and our Panthers. Outside of that, we love to spend time with each other! I would never believe that 28 women could get so close until I experienced it. We are all best friends.
What was the preparation like for the Super Bowl?
SF: In addition to our normal team practices, we got together as a squad to perfect our choreography. We prepared several new routines for the big game, and each girl contributed! It was awesome to see everyone really pull together to get a lot done in a very short amount of time – even our TopCat alumni put together a send-off reception, and showered us with support and advice, since many of the women from the 2003 Super Bowl were there to help us prepare for the trip.
LB: We were allotted 60 seconds for an end zone routine in addition to cheering on the sidelines. We kept to our normal practice schedule, but added an hour of workouts to each practice. This was to ensure we were in optimal shape and had the stamina to perform at our best during the Super Bowl.
Did you ever think that you’d be cheering at the Super Bowl? When the Panthers were on that winning streak, did the team begin to mentally prepare?
SF: I still can’t believe it – I personally never thought I’d be able to live out this dream and feel so blessed to have been a part of it! I think the whole season was just an incredible ride. As a rookie, you’re told to drink in every moment because it will fly by and, as a second-year member, I definitely agree. We loved every minute of this season and, while we didn’t want to take away from each passing game or moment, the prospect of going to the Super Bowl was definitely an exciting thing to think about. And we truly believed in our team’s ability to get us there!
LB: When I decided to audition for the TopCats, I never even thought of the Super Bowl as an option. We all started joking about going and were calling it the “S-word” because we didn’t want to jinx any chances that we had. The NFC Championship game against Arizona was the most fun home game of the season! Some of the girls started crying tears of joy while the game was still going on. We were so excited.
In just one weekend, you had a birthday, a Super Bowl appearance and you got engaged. How much of a whirlwind was that? (Biafora)
LB: I realized halfway through the season that the big game fell on my birthday, and everyone kept saying how cool it would be if we made it there. I did not think that I would be getting very much free time in San Francisco, so when a few free hours popped up Saturday night, he took advantage of them and proposed. It was hard to take in all of the excitement at the same time, and it took me a while to comprehend everything that was happening. Being given the opportunity to dance at the big game and to marry my best friend undoubtedly made Super Bowl 50 the best weekend of my life.
Describe your experience at the Super Bowl – how did you feel on that field, looking for your friends and family in the stands?
SF: It was such a special experience that I’ll cherish for a lifetime. You really get this overpowering sensation that you are part of history. I love Panther nation, and was so proud to represent them while the world watched. The support from Panther fans that traveled and sacrificed so much to be there to support our team was so incredible to see. I know it meant a lot to our players, coaches, staff and Mr. Richardson (the much respected owner of the Panthers). Near or far, win or lose, Panther fans are the best! From the insane Panthers pep rally, to Good Morning America and media day, to team bonding and of course the game – that tunnel, the energy, the celebrities, the fans, the fireworks, the media, and, of course, the football – the whole experience was a dream!
LB: Leading up to the big game, everyone told us that the experience would be like no other and they were right! Above all, I felt entirely grateful to God, the Panthers organization and my coaches for giving me the opportunity to step foot onto the Super Bowl 50 field. I would have to describe the overall feeling of the weekend as “surreal.” It was hard to believe that it was happening to me. Seeing my family and fiancé in the crowd was something that I will always remember and will always be one of my most treasured memories.