February 01, 1999 12:00 PM

Surrounded by hundreds of corn-fed American cheerleaders in the lobby of New York City’s Hilton Hotel, the eight teenagers from the Ascension Eagles Elite squad—in town to march in Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade—seemed overwhelmed. So Coach Shara Brice decided to break the ice. “There was this squad from Mississippi, and I said, ‘Hi. We’re here from London,’ ” she recalls. As her kids offered greetings, the Mississippians’ eyes got big. “We just love y’all’s accents,” drawled one. “You sound just like Princess Diana!” The teens—whose cockney, says Brice, “is more out of Oliver Twist than it is like royalty”—quickly dissolved into giggles.

The Ascension Eagles—the only British squad invited to the Macy’s parade—are even more of a novelty back home, where cheerleading is nearly as exotic as cricket in Texas. What’s more, the Eagles hail not from a posh private school but from Custom House, one of London’s roughest neighborhoods. Still, the two-year-old, 80-member team has vaulted to more victories in competition than any British team ever—thanks to the Houston-born Brice, 29, a former cheerleader bent on making a difference in the lives of youngsters in her adopted homeland.

With pom-poms and pyramids? You bet. “Cheerleading isn’t just cheerleading,” Brice declares. Along with kicks and splits, she says, the members of her team’s five squads, ranging in age from 6 to 18, learn self-confidence and discipline. Brice, whose husband, Jonathan, 37, is the vicar of Custom House’s Church of the Ascension, requires her kids to volunteer with community groups and pledge not to drink, smoke or swear while in uniform. She even pitches in with their homework. “You can talk to her about any of your problems,” says Debbie Haynes, 16. “She’s like another mum.”

In 1996, after the Anglican Church assigned her husband to his drug-and crime-ridden parish, Brice held tryouts for a cheerleading team—and drew plenty of curious girls. “I thought cheerleaders were just blonde-haired, blue-eyed bimbos,” says Dominique Tipper, 13. Some cheer-challenged parents, says Brice, suggested their uniform be “waistcoats and tuxedo tails.”

Even so,-as she instructed 20 girls in traditional cheers (“We are Eagles, couldn’t be prouder/If you can’t hear us, we’ll shout a little louder”) in the recreational hall of Jonathan’s church, Brice discovered she wasn’t tilling virgin soil: Britain had begun to hold cheerleading tournaments, drawing several hundred competitors. Her team entered one in March 1997 and did poorly. But they persevered and last spring captured a raft of trophies, including top honors at the British and European championships. “Our kids just kept winning and winning,” Brice says. “The parents were up in the stands crying their eyes out.” The all-expenses-paid New York trip capped the run.

Brice, whose art-teacher mother and engineer father own a cheerleader gym in Kansas City, Mo., clearly has the sport in her blood. A crowd rouser since fifth grade, she decided to forgo her school squad at 15 to start Cheerbringers of America, a model for her Ascension group that grew to include 100 girls. In 1989, during a junior year abroad at Oxford University studying psychology, she met Jonathan, a theology student. After three years of courting (he spent summers in the U.S.), they wed in 1992 and moved to his first parish, outside London. Their daughter Crichelle was born in 1995; son Joel in 1997, after the move to Custom House.

Though the two have poured their $21,000 savings into the team, the sacrifice has been worth it, says Brice, who treasures what one father said after a victory in Wales: “Our whole lives are full of rubbish, but now our kids are champions.” Declares Brice proudly: “It just shows if they set their minds to it, they can really soar.”

Samantha Miller

Ellen Lieberman in London

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