40-year-old with kidney ailment makes the Saintsations

When Kriste Lewis went out for the Saints’ cheerleading squad this year, she never dreamed she’d win a place. Or that doing so would make her a national news story.

The 40-year-old mother of two from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is now one of only two NFL cheerleaders over the age of 40. Her age, and the fact that she suffers from polycystic kidney disease that likely will cause her kidneys to shut down in 10 years, have made her a case of when good news travels fast.

“‘Good Morning America,’ ‘Fox & Friends,’ ‘Headline News,’ The Associated Press — I’ve done interviews with all of them so far,” Lewis said. “We’ve also had interest from People Magazine and Heath & Fitness Magazine. It’s so crazy right now, we’re just trying to soak it all in.”

Lewis said a recent Associated Press interview was especially fun for her two boys — Jake, 14, and Rob, 11.

“We did the interview at the Saints practice facility, and the first thing the boys did was kick off their shoes and run full out across the field,” Lewis said with a laugh. “And then, of course, they had to take some selfies with the Super Bowl trophy.”

Lesslee Fitzmorris, director of the Saintsations, said the new dancer has all the right moves. “We put her on the team based on skills, based on her qualifications,” Fitzmorris said.

She’s also got a winning attitude and a refusal to give up that the squad finds inspiring.

“She’s everybody’s cheerleader,” Fitzmorris said.

A slender, fit brunette, Lewis turned 40 in October and was looking for a way to celebrate. “All the things my friends were doing — running a marathon or triathlon or getting a tattoo — those things just didn’t fit me,” she said.

Then, at a birthday party, a wild idea popped up: to try out for the Saints’ athletic, gorgeous cheering squad.

“From that point I just couldn’t stop thinking about it,” she said.

Lewis dedicated the next six months to training. A part-time dance fitness instructor, she enlisted the help of a friend who is a professional dancer to help with routines, and, with her doctor’s approval, tweaked her diet to add more protein and started strength training. When tryouts came, Lewis was ready.

“I felt like I was at the top of my game,” she said. “I didn’t know if it would be enough, but it was enough for me.”

Lewis said her goal was always just to enjoy the experience of the tryouts — to just “get out there and dance.” With over 200 women vying for only 36 spots, and many of them professional dancers half her age, she said she never imagined she’d even make the first cut.

“There were three cuts that first day, and each time I made one I’d think to myself, ‘Well, this will definitely be my last dance so I’d better do my best,’ ” she said.

But Lewis stayed in the running. Finally, after three days, she got the good news.

“I had just arrived back from walking the dog and my phone just blew up with texts and calls from friends and family,” she said. “It was…well, it was like Christmas morning.”

While Lewis anxiously awaits the chance to take the field for the first time, she says that she hopes her story will inspire others to chase their bucket list dreams.

“Whether you’re sick, you’re aging and you think life has passed you by, or you’re a mom who’s always so busy giving to others,” she said, “it’s never too late.”