When Netflix's docuseries CHEER was released, I was flooded with messages, compliments, and questions from old friends and colleagues. Why? Because I'm the only cheerleader they know.

Whilst Australia's cheerleading community is anything but small (nationals pulled in 12,000 competitors and a crowd of 18,000 spectators), it isn't very well known across the wider population. These numbers are even smaller when you get down to where I live in the western suburbs of Melbourne. There are multiple reasons for this, including stereotypes perpetuated by movies and popular culture, as well as the general lack of awareness of this sport even existing. However, I am aware that another reason for a lot of girls (and boys) not being able to participate in cheerleading growing up was because not everyone could afford it.

See, cheerleading is an expensive sport. Annually, cheerleading costs me up to 3k a year. Term fees, uniform costs, competition fees, flights and accommodation for any interstate competitions, choreography, and music; it all costs a pretty penny. And if you're going to the national or world championships? Well, that's a whole other ball game that I don't need to get into. On top of all of this, my gym is on the other side of the city from where I live, and I train 3 times a week, though this sometimes increases depending on the time of year. Petrol isn't free, so you do the math.
My point is, cheerleading isn't cheap. And once I got old enough, it was (obviously) my responsibility to pay for my participation in this hobby, which as a full-time student, wasn't easy. I work a lot of nights and weekends, and I had to sacrifice a lot more than people realize to do this sport. But we all do. Being a high-level competitive cheerleader, or high-level athlete of any sport comes with sacrifices.

Being a Flyer
Every cheerleader has a position or role on a team, and each member serves an important purpose. My role, probably the easiest to remember, is the girls they throw into the air. I'm called a flyer, and the girls holding me up are called bases. In layman's terms, my job is to squeeze and contort my body and make everything look good in the air. When I explain this to people for the first time, I usually hear the same questions. "Is it scary?" "Is it fun?" "Do you do twists and flips in the air?" My answer is yes to all of them. However, there's a little more to it than that.

Something that I want to share about flying that isn't really mentioned is that often times, you have no idea what you're about to do. You're frequently being asked to do things that you've never previously done, and nothing can prepare you for the feeling of chucking your body into the air, twisting and flipping in a way that you have never tried before, and expecting somebody below to catch you. Your sense of spatial awareness the first time you're doing a skill is almost non-existent. You may as well be blindfolded.
See, the coaches don't have time to take things through with you step by step. You get told two things: what to do, and then to do it. A lot of the time, they won't tell you exactly what you should expect to feel, how you'll be caught, how you should land, or give you any time to wrap your head around it. There are little safety precautions or measures in this sport other than the arms of a few girls standing at the bottom, and there is very little time for slow progression and steps. You can cry or panic, but in the end, you still have to do it.

My other problem is that I'm scared of heights. And though I feel ridiculous admitting that (it is my job on the team after all), it's something that I frequently struggle with. Sometimes I tear up out of sheer panic of a hard skill, or I'll break a sweat because I just don't understand what I'm being asked to do. I am terrified of heights, and I'm terrified of making mistakes; a terrible formula for a high-level flyer.

So why do I do it?

As selfish and completely inaccurate as this claim may be, most of the time when a team is on the competition floor, spectators aren't looking at the bases. Unless somebody in particular catches your eye, or an athlete draws attention to themselves, chances are, the crowd just isn't staring at them. They're looking at me. Not me specifically, but the flyer. One of the best feelings that I will ever experience is hitting a stunt at the world championships, and hearing a crowd of over 15,000 people cheering. And for a split second while I'm still in the air, my eyes adjust to the lights and I stare at the people in the crowd. And as arrogant as it may come across, even though there are 20 other people on the floor, it feels as though they're cheering for me. The feeling is addictive, and it's indescribable. It's why so many cheerleaders are never ready to retire.

However, this also comes at a cost. When a crowd of 15,000 people are watching you succeed, you're probably the first person they see when something goes wrong. They won't (usually) notice a base messing up the grips or taking a step in the wrong direction. But what they do notice is my head bounce across the floor, or all of the split-second mistakes that I frequently make at multiple points in a routine. They watch me succeed, but they also watch me fail. The whole stunt will be scrutinised and gawked at, but it's my face they'll remember.

Being Part of Team
Team sports are common. Basketball, soccer, netball, all the rest. But cheerleading takes it to another level. There is no such thing as personal space. We need to get super close and personal. A good base is standing chest to chest with their counterpart, breathing each other's air. As a flyer, I have had bases unintentionally shove their fingers up every crevice of my body. A good team of any sport aims to build a level of chemistry and trust within their athletes. However, unlike other team sports, I'm not just trusting them to do their job because I want to win. I'm trusting them to do their job because as I'm being thrown up 10ft in the air, my safety is on the line. I need to trust them.

And I do, I trust those girls with my life.

Looking at it from an unbiased point of view, cheerleading is a weird sport. For 2½ minutes, you are holding and tossing humans up in the air, flipping and twisting across the floor, and contorting your body in ways that it probably shouldn't. You're chucking the most ridiculous and theoretically dangerous stunts and tumble passes, and each year is all about how we can make it harder. And no matter how much you're dying inside, you're smiling at the crowd and trying to make it look fun and easy. You train all year to put a routine on the floor that is over in less than 5 minutes, just for the chance to win a piece of painted metal. No cash prizes, just a medal hanging around your neck. You'll tear a few ligaments, maybe an ACL. Maybe you'll crack a rib or break a nose. You'll get bruised, cut, scratched, concussed, and frequently beaten by a foot to the face. All of this and nobody in the wider Australian population will have any idea of who you are or what you do.

So yeah, It's a weird sport. But god, I love it.

            - Loz

No comments: