Friday, 12 July 2013

A7: S2 - A Day in the Life of a Competitive Cheerleader

So there's quite a major part of my life that I have never mentioned or discussed on Scarphelia, something which people are always surprised to find out, and often say things like "But... that's so not you." - to which I can't help but smile at.

 And that is, as you maaaaaaaaay have already guessed, (Yup, that's me in the middle there with the big bow!) that I am a Level 3 International Competitive Cheerleader.

Ever since I can remember, I've always dreamed of being a cheerleader.

My school days were filled with religiously learning the words to Bring it On off by heart, attempting to perform backflips from sofas with my friends at sleepovers and three unsuccessful attempts to coerce my middle school PE teachers into introducing cheerleading to the curriculum, or instigate some form of after school club.

I was going through my clothes drawers at home the other day, when I found a tiny little makeshift cheerleading outfit that I'd painstakingly sewn together a the age of 11, to wear at my presentation as to why the school needed a squad. 

As always, I was faced with a not-so-subtle-laugh-in-face rejection, and in the end, I let the dream dwindle. I resolved that I'd never wear a swishy skirt, a giant bow in my hair and clap colorful pom-poms together as I recited preppy chants and claps to an adoring team and crowd.

But even as I grew older and wiser, I still held on to that little girlish dream, and secretly spent hours researching local squads, sketching up uniform designs and trawling through the 16-page rule sheets for the British Cheerleading Championships.

It was nothing I was ever really able to let go of, and that's why it makes me smile when people say things like 'But that's so not you.' Because, fundamentally, nothing else could be more me. It's something I've wanted my entire life.

And when I came to University, my dream came true.

And this came in the form of The University of Hertfordshire Sirens.

(That's me, top row second from the right!)

Instantly I was in love.

Everything about it was just as I'd dreamed and so much more. 

The stunts, the friends, the gamedays cheering on the American Football boys, the unexpected athleticism of it, the uniforms, the nights out together, the way of life... It was sublime.

In my second year I was elected Social Secretary of The Sirens, and was in charge of integrating the new recruits into the squad, which I've adored. Seeing these nervous young faces come forward and whisper sheepishly, in a shy admittance "I'd... actually really like to try cheerleading..." was so exciting, and soon we had a whole new lot of avid young athletes ready to take on the new challenge of becoming a competitive cheerleader. 

For Nationals in my second year, when we competed as Level 2, I was even awarded the role of Senior Captain, which almost bought a tear to my eye as I was handed the purple sparkling Spirit Stick, emblazoned with 'SIRENS' in little crystalline gems. (And if you're a cheerleader, or have even just seen Bring it On, you'll know a Spirit Stick is a HUGE deal.)

In fact, I felt more of a sense of divine accomplishment in that one moment, than I had for anything else throughout my entire first year at University. I was living and loving my childhood dream, and it was loving me back. 

In terms of performance however, our trophies have never quite mirrored our passion and enthusiasm.

As Gameday cheerleaders we put every other squad in the country to shame, screaming louder, cheering harder and just generally being so much more damn passionate about the game than any other squad around, and we are renowned for it. Our American Football team were National Champions in my first year and boy oh boy, come rain or shine, hell or high water, we did not let any other team forget it.

But when it came down to stepping out onto those blue sprung mats, in front of the bright lights and thousands of eager, judging faces, we all just seemed to lose it a little.

In my first ever cheerleading competition in February 2012, we came in at 24th place.

The experience itself was mind-blowing and rewarding enough alone, but it couldn't help but serve as a massive blow to rank so low, especially to us rookies. After putting it all we could, we'd flopped and come second from last.

Our next competition was later that summer, and after training hard with a new routine, we somehow managed to come NINTH out of seven. We were so bad that they'd apparently invented a new category for us.

I must admit, then, I became disenchanted with the whole thing.

It felt like a foolish pipedream, where I'd always wanted to look the part and be able to give myself the title, but when it came down to it, there was just humiliating defeat. I contemplated leaving the Sirens.

But then I realised.

The Sirens were the only reason I was actually at University.

They were my support group, my safety net, and most of all, they were my family.

 If I was freaking out or having a rough time, I had 68 girls who would be there right away to help me out in any way I can. Cheer had allowed me to express myself and entertain as well as improving my physical fitness and awareness of others. Cheer had given me the most incredible opportunities and experiences, like actually competing in the competitions I'd read the rulebooks of as a kid, travelling across the country to cheer our boys on the sidelines, and even exciting events like cheering for Cadbury's and at the Hard Rock Cafe for the SuperBowl.

And that was something I never wanted to lose.

So this year, with a new squad, a new coach and some new uniforms, I was determined to make a sincere effort and make sure we smashed the competition.

*Cue full-on 80's Rocky training montage*

In our February competition of this year, I led as Senior Captain, and although we'd improved vastly and did a lot better than last time, we came away with a 16th place trophy.

But we wern't last.

And in fact... we were quite far from last place. And sitting there on that blue mat, enclosed in a circle of my team-mates who I'd shed blood, sweat and tears with, holding each others hands with eyes closed and murmuring under our breaths little prayers of luck... each team that passed that wasn't us felt like winning first place each time.

After coming second to last and then BEYOND last place, I know this sounds cruel, but having a good ten or so teams come worse than us, with a team that I'd help lead as Senior Captain... well my god I could've died happy right then and there. I even got to go up and accept the trophy which was a pretty incredible and surreal experience.

Fast-forward to the present day, a week after Glastonbury, we were set to compete again at the Future Cheer 2013 International Cheerleading Championships in Bournemouth.

I have never ever been so nervous for a competition. I actually had two nightmares on two consecutive nights about screwing up the routine, and it was safe to say I was absolutely bricking it.

The day itself started off terribly - not only did we wake up late, I'd had to borrow someone elses uniform as mine had been stolen when our house got robbed, and on the way to catch the coach with zero sleep, I'd dropped my bow too and lost it. The whole way there I just felt sick to my stomach, and being someone with a pathological phobia of sick, combined with the severe nerves for comp, I was just all around not in a great way.

But when I got to the arena... I realised something about cheerleading that day.

I was walking between the stadium chairs to where our designated seating area was.

I looked down to see a small blonde girl in a bright pink uniform writing a message inside a giant oversize Thank You card. The card was full to bursting with messages, spread all across the page, I guessed from various members of the team. At the top, the Thank You card was addressed to the coach. And they hadn't even competed yet.

That's when I realised just how minor the competition part of training actually is.

Those girls hadn't even competed, they hadn't won or lost anything, yet they were still so grateful for their coach regardless, as were we. Those girls had their own stories, anecdotes, inside jokes, traumas and experiences of being a cheerleader, all unique to their own perspective of being inside their own squad. And they were a family.

And right then I looked around the vast expanse of the arena, and I did not see competition or enemies.

Like flocks of vibrant canaries and tropical birds of paradise, I saw these sprawling brightly-coloured families filling the seats, each unique and distinguishable by their markings and colourings, led by one person that inspired the faith and self-belief to motivate and reassure them that they are amazing. I saw brothers and sisters, united by sport but held together by love and trust, sitting hand in hand, sharing not only their unity, but also their anxiety, nerves and excitement.

And when I saw that, I suddenly didn't really care where we placed.

Because we do not cheer for trophies.

We do not sweat for medals or toil for recognition.

We cheer because we love it.

It might be a competition, but it's not just about winning.

It's about standing on the sidelines, defiant against whatever the weather gods have conjured up to test you, when the boys are flagging and weak, and through the howling of the winds they just hear us screaming after them, feeling that effervescent undercurrent of pride and love running like an electrical current beneath the grass of the pitch that says I know you can do this, and it runs up into all of our feet, keeping us warm on the darkest of days, and keeping us strong on the toughest of fights.

It's that last reassuring glance you shoot to the members of your stunt group, as you all take to the mat and a hushed silence falls across the arena, just before the music booms around your ears. When the only sound is your own frantic heartbeat awaiting those opening notes, it's a mutual look between you all that says 'We've got this, okay? We've got this.'

It's that feeling of absolute soaring elation when your hands grip around the foot of your flier, and you know you're about to surge of all your combined strengths to push her up into a stunt that she's never actually stuck before, and your arms lock out, and she's not wobbling, she's not falling. She's up. You've fallen over and over, but you've got back up every single time and tried again. In the stunt that you've never ever successfully executed in training, you've done it perfectly on the day, at the one moment where it all counts.

And then it's all over.

Applause roared around the arena and we were done. All those endless months of endless training, exerted and summarised into one 3-minute segment of our lives.

And you know what?

I nearly cried.

Because after coming 24th, beyond last, and then 16th, in my 4th competition as a cheerleader...

We came 3rd.

And it was the look of distaste, despair and disappointment on the faces of some of the other squads who'd achieved third place, in comparison to us absolutely going mental for achieving third, that says pretty much everything about why I love being a cheerleader, and why I love being a Siren.

No other team has such a strong team spirit as us - our foundations are built on love, respect, pride and most of all, trust. And by the looks of things, it won't be long before that starts to translate on the mat, and we will become the champions we deserve to be.

They are my family, and I will be a Siren forever.


  1. great article

  2. That's fantastic. I never got to be a cheerleader myself but I love the sport, especially the bravery of competitions.


  4. Wow! So cool, great article. Thanks for sharing! I know what you mean about how much hard work it is. For competition I wear these Kaepa shoes, how about you guys? Keep it up!

  5. What a great article. I started out cheering on a University squad myself, and have experienced the highs of winning and the lows of putting out a routine full of silly mistakes and being feeling robbed. I'm on an allstar program now, but it was my university squad that got me started and I owe everything about my cheer success to them!

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