Rie O. hopped off a plane in Atlanta without knowing anyone, leaving behind her life in Saitama, Japan and beginning a new one in the United States. From the moment she arrived, the 29-year-old was faced with numerous challenges like figuring out how to get a driver's license, finding where to live and learning how to speak English.
The only thing she was certain of was that she had a dream, and she was here to pursue it.
Despite the language barriers and cultural differences, Rie reminded herself she came to Georgia with a purpose. That purpose was eventually the same place where she found a family and a home away from home — the Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders.
Having started cheerleading at Senshu University in Japan, Rie's coach knew she had the potential to succeed as an NFL cheerleader. She advised her to audition to be an Atlanta Falcons Cheerleader, as she told her they were the best cheerleading squad in the NFL.
Although Rie's coach is the one who advised her to audition, she credits current Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders choreographer Jakene Ashford as the original source of inspiration that got her where she is now.
"The Falcons visited Tokyo in 2005 for the Tokyo Bowl," Rie said. "My coach had seen Jakene's performance at the game and believed that Jakene was the best dancer on the field. She fell in love with the Falcons Cheerleaders because of Jakene's performance at that game."
After deciding it was her goal to be on the Falcons squad, Rie went through a process of hiring lawyers to obtain her visa and maintaining two jobs to save up enough money to make the move overseas. After making the team, Rie packed her bags and headed to Atlanta for what she thought was going to be a one-year stay.
Fast forward to January 2014, and she's just completed her second season with the Falcons and has lived in Atlanta for almost two years.
"During my first season with the Falcons I felt so welcomed and loved that I decided to try out for a second season," she said. "Upon making the cut for the second season, I knew I wanted to stay here longer. To add to my decision, I won the Green Card lottery. That means that I now have the ability and grant to live here for 10 years or possibly more.
"My experience has been so amazing. I feel reborn. Everything is new to me here and there is so much to learn. I love all of the new friendships I have gained during my short time here."
Although Rie has fit seamlessly with her American team, she admits cheerleading in the United States and Japan couldn't be more different. The crowds in Japan stay quiet during the routine as if they were watching a classical performance, while in the United States cheerleaders are meant to get the crowd pumped.
Rie quickly learned this while she was still a cheerleader in Japan, as she would pay attention to techniques used in the NFL during overseas trips that her Japanese squad, the Obic Seagulls, would take. When they returned to Japan, they started incorporating what they call 'crowd noise' into their routines and the result was something that still amazes Rie.
"Several years ago, no one was making crowd noise at the games in Japan," she said. "So we were the very first team to start to leading the crowd noise. The outcome of making crowd noise was amazing. Since that year, the Obic Seagullls started their road to winning four Japanese National Championships in a row."
After seeing the impact that incorporating new technqiues could have on the sport in Japan, Rie has made sure to stay close to her former team so that she can help them continue to grow.
Her cause went full force recently, as 14 of her former teammates recently visited her to get a first-hand look at what cheerleading in the NFL is all about. They accompanied her to practice and stood on the field as the Atlanta Falcons Cheerleaders prepared to perform at the Falcons' final game of the season on Dec. 29.
After accomplishing her initial goal, she now has her mind set on another goal: bringing her two worlds closer together in any way she can. Aside from being a cheerleader, she also works as a recruiter specialized to help Japanese-English Bilingual people find employment.
"I would love to be the person that makes American football and cheerleading popular in Japan," Rie said. "I believe that my experience gained here could be just the spark I need to make this dream a reality."