DALLAS — "America's Team."
Whether you agree or not, being a part of one of the most valuable franchises in all of sports is something many athletes -- and dancers -- dream of.
But one of the most iconic parts of the team doesn't even take a snap or score a touchdown.
If you've ever been, then you know that games at AT&T Stadium don't begin until the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders take the field.
And, among the cheerleading squad, Zhenya Kolpakova can't help but smile -- because she knows what it took to be on that field.
"Every time I step out on that field, I just think back like, wow, this almost didn't happen," Kolpakova told WFAA.
A little girl from Ukraine
Kolpakova grew up in the Dnipropetrovsk region of Ukraine with her mother and sister. She credited her mother's friends with the opportunity of moving to the new land of Texas -- filled with new dreams.
"My mom's friends at the time, they won, like, a lottery raffle visa, and so they moved their family to the United States, and they met a really great guy here that they thought my mom would really like," she said. "So they introduced them, and eventually he proposed, and we moved to the United States."
She said the two emailed and talked with each other for a few years and that he even went to visit them in Ukraine. And in 2005, Kolpakova, her sister, and her mother packed up and moved to Mansfield, Texas, where she grew up.
"It was nothing like Ukraine, we lived in downtown in Ukraine, so everything is within walking distance, and people walk everywhere. So, being inside a house and not knowing anybody, not knowing the language, is an interesting time for us at the time," Kolpakova said.
Kolpakova found a passion while trying to fit in: the drill team.
That led to her eventually finding her new dream in college.
At 19 years old, a friend told her about a group she didn't know a lot about: the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. Her friend convinced her to try out -- for fun.
However, with little knowledge of just how big the Cowboys cheerleaders were, she said she wasn't as prepared as she should have been.
When Kolpakova didn't make the squad, she vowed to audition again and take it seriously to make the team.
But, with life and a career taking over, she kept putting off auditions over the years.
Then, the war in Ukraine began.
"Whenever the war started in Ukraine, I was talking to my grandma, and she was telling me how you can't live your life with regrets. You got to just go for it. You never know what's going to happen," Kolpakova said.
She described her grandmother, who still lives in Ukraine, as her foundation and someone who always supports her dreams. "She's the example that I try to live up to every day," Kolpakova said.
So, at 30 years old, Kolpakova auditioned again. And this time, she made it to the second round of auditions -- something that should be celebrated.
Life, however, had a different plan.
A "freak accident"
Along with finding out she made it to the second round of auditions, Kolpakova said it coincided with her sister graduating from Texas A&M University.
Kolpakova was in College Station with family and had more than just a graduation to celebrate.
Altogether, they fired up a pit at her sister's townhome community to make s'mores. And then, it happened: a freak accident.
Kolpakova said she was sitting next to the fire pit when "this ball of fire just came out of the fire pit, almost like an explosion out of nowhere. It flew right at me."
Her whole body -- engulfed.
"It landed right on my legs, and my whole body caught on fire."
"My fiance and my mom immediately jumped on my body, took off their clothes, and tried to put out my face first and my hair," Kolpakova said. "It stuck to my skin and just kept burning."
She said the worst burns happened on her legs and that the flames just wouldn't stop.
"The pain was excruciating. It felt like I was just being cooked in an oven."
"And all I remember is just sprinting into the parking concrete parking lot with my legs on fire. It was like a scene out of a movie or something, trying to get it off my body."
Her burn injuries were so intense that local treatment in the area wasn't enough.
She had to be transported to Parkland Hospital in Dallas -- a four-hour ambulance ride.
"Just skin just hanging off. And it was a huge shock to me, and I didn't know what I would do next or what the next steps would be," she said.
With various second and third-degree burns, she was hospitalized for a week.
Kolpakova said doctors told her she was lucky she didn't go blind or suffocate for that matter, because the flames had reached her mouth and eyes.
"At Parkland, when I got there, they cleaned me, which was probably the worst pain I've ever felt. It's like being power-washed. Don't recommend," she said.
She said she went through days of physical therapy while trying to regrow skin that was burnt off.
"Every single piece of skin that got burnt, I had to move it. And the reason why they said is that if you don't move it, then it's going to heal in that position," she said. "You bend your legs and re-rip all the skin that grew every time."
And the whole time during the rehabbing process, she couldn't stop thinking about the auditions.
With severe burns on her legs, she had to re-learn how to walk and how to dance. She just wanted to power through the recovery process.
"I wanted to live the rest of my life the same way that I did beforehand," she said.
And eventually, the tryouts resumed.
Making the team
The second round of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders tryouts came fast -- perhaps too fast. The team was behind her the whole way and allowed her to submit a video for her second round of tryouts instead of performing in person.
The only hurdle that was ahead of her -- finals.
With singed hair and with no eyebrows or eyelashes, Kolpakova didn't expect to make the team.
"I was like, this is just a wild card. There's no way. I just went because I said, if I didn't go, then how do I know what would have happened?" Kolpakova said. "So I just wrapped up my legs, wrapped up my wounds, took some ibuprofens and went, drew on some eyebrows, put on some fake eyelashes, and went."
Despite all that had happened to her, she got a much-welcomed realization: She made it.
"Whenever they called my number, I was in shock," she said. "I was like, this is not like my place. I'm injured. I don't know how quickly I'm going to heal. And I don't know that they knew that either. I think they were just hoping, trying to give me a chance."
"It happened so quickly, I don't even remember. It was like a dream."
Kolpakova thanked the DCC organization for all of its support during her life-changing experience.
"They were there every step of the way from the second I got moved into Parkland," she said.
And, of course, one of the first people to know about the news was Kolpakova's grandmother.
"In moments like this, with what's happening in Ukraine, any good news is just making her day a little bit better," Kolpakova said.
Kolpakova said she had delayed telling her grandmother about the accident because she didn't want to cause worry, as remaining in Ukraine is already stressful.
"We didn't know how she would react, and we didn't want to add more stress to the situation that she is already in," Kolpakova said.
"Tears of joy" was how Kolpakova described how her grandmother reacted to the news.
"She was over to the moon. She was so proud of me, and she cried. I cried," Kolpakova said.
For Kolpakova, it was hard to put into words how much her grandmother and mother impacted her life and helped her reach her dream.
"My grandma, and my mom, did so much to help raise me and give me all the opportunities I've had in life. They had to sacrifice so much. With everything that I do in my life, I try to think of will this make them proud?" she said.
"Am I going to do justice to what they had to give up to let me have these things that I'm able to accomplish in my life?"
And when Kolpakova took to the field for the first time in the iconic Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders uniform, her family was on her mind.
"I saw my mom waving in the stands, and I felt this wave of love from my family overtake me. And I almost started crying as I'm trying to, like, the music is playing, I'm supposed to walk out on the field, and I'm getting emotional," she said.
It was an experience "that almost didn't happen."
"Through the pain and through the struggle, not letting that stop me, I know they're proud of me, so it makes me feel proud of myself, as well," Kolpakova said.
Kolpakova said her grandmother will be visiting in December to watch her perform on Christmas Eve under the bright stadium lights of AT&T Stadium.