Tumbling through the noise: Athletics more than hobby for UK cheerleader

Senior Cheerleader Josh Marsh catches his partner while cheering on the football team for the final time this season at Kroger Field on Saturday, Nov. 17, 2018, in Lexington, Kentucky.

He runs a faster 40-yard dash than Saquon Barkley and has a higher max vertical leap than Donovan Mitchell. He can do 20 reps on a 225-pound bench press while Reid Travis can only do 18 reps on a 185-pound bench press.

He is one of the top athletes, if not the top athlete, on Kentucky’s campus, yet you never see him compete for the Wildcats on the court or on the field. Instead, he is the one cheering for the Wildcats on the sidelines.

As a cheerleader for the Kentucky cheer team, Josh Marsh has seen a lot of talented athletes perform in a Kentucky blue jersey, but his numbers prove that he’s always one of the top athletes wearing blue on the field or hardwood.

“I always try to pride myself on my athletic ability and actually being able to put numbers to it was surreal,” Marsh said.

Another way Marsh gets to show off his insane athletic ability is during the tumbling acts Marsh performs on occasion at Kentucky football and basketball home games.

Every major football or basketball game features a performance from Marsh, where he flips, twirls and tumbles his way through the endzone of Kroger Field or from one side of the court to the other in Rupp Arena.

For Marsh, acrobatically tumbling in front of the Kentucky crowds is something he did because he enjoyed it. It is a fun and creative way to showcase his athleticism.

With the way that fans have responded to it, however, Marsh’s tumbling skits have turned into a performance, where he feels pressure to deliver for those watching.

“I was just doing it for fun, now I kind of feel like it is my duty to make sure that I’m doing something that’s entertaining the crowd,” Marsh said.

Marsh makes his tumbling performances look easy, but just like any athletic talent, it took years of hard work for Marsh to perfect his craft.

Those years were spent in JAM Athletics, a gym that Marsh’s mother owns in Stone Mountain, Georgia, Marsh’s hometown right outside of Atlanta.

Marsh’s mom has owned the gym since April 2000. She opened the gym so parents with busy schedules could leave their children in a place where they could grow academically and athletically.

As the son of the gym owner, Marsh spent many hours in the facility, which is where he first discovered his athletic capabilities. Marsh and his older brother, John Marsh, started doing gymnastics when Josh was in middle school so Josh could establish the fundamental athletic skills needed for any type of sport.

Josh’s first experience with tumbling wasn’t as fluid as the performances in Kroger Field and Rupp Arena, as it took some time for Josh to learn those skills.

“One of the things that I kind of like grew up on thinking was ‘crash and burn is the way you learn,’” Josh said. “I’ve definitely had my fair shares of a whole lot of crashing and burning and a whole lot of trial and error.”

Despite the many accidents, Josh has never suffered an injury worse than a high ankle sprain. He’s never broken a bone doing gymnastics, which is something to suggest that gymnastics and tumbling is something Josh was made to do.

However, gymnastics wasn’t Josh’s sole focus in terms of athletics. His parents wanted him to try as many sports as possible, so he had plenty of options to choose from when it came to what he wanted to do with his future.

“Everything started from the gymnastics and from there, it kind of just broadened my athletic ability and everything else that I was going to be doing,” Josh said.

After gymnastics, Josh experimented with all kinds of sports, such as football, basketball, baseball, wrestling and even fencing.

“Wasn’t my thing, but it was something that my parents wanted us to get into,” Josh said.

In high school, Josh’s athletic ability was displayed on many platforms. He won state titles in cheerleading, swim & dive and qualified for the state championships in two separate events in his first season running track & field.

Football was Josh’s favorite sport out of all his choices, where he was a running back and defensive back. Josh had offers to play other sports in college, but after years of experimenting with other sports, he realized the sport that began everything for him was what he enjoyed the most.

“It always came back to cheerleading, my parents owned a cheerleading, gymnastics gym back home, so it was always something that was a part of our family and it was something that I could just have fun with,” Josh said.

When Josh would participate in the after-school gymnastics programs at JAM Athletics, he would compete with around 100 kids in the program, but the competitor Josh was always chasing was his brother.

Josh learned how to tumble alongside his brother, John, in the family gym for years. The two would constantly push each other to new heights and limits, which led to big improvements for both of the brothers.

“He was also the person that would – he would do stuff and I had to challenge myself like ‘There’s no way that I can let him be better than me,’” Josh said.

Overtime, Josh and John developed into very talented athletes, so much so that they’ve both gotten the opportunity to compete for the nation’s best collegiate cheerleading team at Kentucky.

There was a span of time when John and Josh were both on Kentucky’s cheer team at the same time. The two would showcase their athletic skills of tumbling for fans at Kentucky sporting events, skills that they had been practicing and improving on years ahead of time.

“Tumbling was like fun for us, so it really wasn’t really like a chore, so we would just do it for hours on end, like almost every single day, just trying to challenge our self do all different types of crazy new skills,” Josh said.

Since then, John has graduated from Kentucky, leaving Josh behind to entertain the fans who enjoy watching Josh fly through the air. Fans come up to Josh all the time asking if he’s going to tumble for the crowd that day, or what moves they can expect to see Josh perform.

One of the toughest skills Josh has mastered, and fans crave to see, is when Josh is at the end of the court or endzone, but he switches direction with a flip, continuing his tumble in the opposite direction.

“That’s one of the skills that are pretty difficult, you’re not really going to see a lot of people doing it,” Josh said. “It’s also a skill that I think the crowd really enjoys. It doesn’t come out all the time because it’s not easy and it doesn’t feel too good on the shins and the achilles.”

As much as it may hurt, that move stirs up the crowds, which is the energy he feeds off to tumble the way he does.

“I like the crowd participation so if the crowd is going really really wild, I’m more than likely going to be doing something that I probably shouldn’t be doing and trying something even crazier, something higher, something that my coach Jomo (Thompson) would probably tell me not to do beforehand,” Josh said.

Josh has such a passion for cheerleading that when his time of being a Kentucky cheerleader is done, he wants to find a way to stay involved in the cheerleading community while helping people, another passion for Josh.

That’s another way that Josh’s brother has influenced him in his life, as the two co-own a business with another former UK cheerleader Spencer Clan called The Cheer Experts. With the business, the brothers and Clan travel the country to teach kids of all ages the skills necessary for cheerleading and the fun that comes with it.

“He showed me that athletics is really, really big, but it’s also more than athletics and there’s a business side, there’s other stuff that you can achieve,” Josh said.

Josh has been a co-owner of The Cheer Experts for four years while John has co-owned the company for six years. The trio of athletes typically do most of their business in the summer, when kids and Josh’s school schedule lighten up, but the business has become so popular that once Josh is out of school, it’s possible teaching kids cheerleading could become a full-time job.

“During the summer we were very, very busy, it’s getting to the point to where we’re starting to kind of drift into the school year now because it’s starting to get bigger and bigger,” Josh said.

The enjoyable part about running the business is Josh gets to work alongside his brother, years after the two picked the hobby of tumbling in their mom’s gym in Georgia. The two went on to cheer for Kentucky, and now that they own a business together, Josh is appreciative of all that his brother has taught him.

“If it was not for my brother, I don’t think I would be in the situation I would be in right now,” Josh said. “I’d probably be playing a totally different – participating in something totally different if it wasn’t for him. He was the reason why that I challenged myself years back, challenged myself to be the best I could be, trying not to be complacent with the way that I am.”