More than 1,500 young athletes gathered at WinSport over the weekend to compete in one of Canada’s hardest sports: Cheerleading.
Although not always commonly recognized as a sport, cheerleading combines the difficulty of gymnastics, the precision of dance, the strength of powerlifting, all while having to keep a smile during a two-and-a-half minute highly choreographed group routine.
Competitors at the Imagine Cheer and Dance Competition that took place at Winsport on Feb. 4 and 5, were also competing for a chance to take their teams to the highest levels of international competition at the Varsity Summit Championships, to be held later this year at Disney World in Florida.
“It’s incredibly difficult, so it’s really great to start to get get the respect,” said Samantha Paradee, event producer for the competition.
“Cheerleading is so great because it was born within sportsmanship, and the sportsmanship just keeps going—it’s truly a community.”
Gyms from across B.C., Alberta, and Saskatchewan, entered teams and individual competitors into this year’s event.
“We have a tumbling section, which is all the gymnastics or the floor apparatus that you see. We have a jumping section, which obviously leads to gymnastics and dance, and we have a dance section, which requires precise timing and synchronized motions,” Paradee said.
“And then we have stunting.. they toss girls 20-24 feet in the air, it’s actually quite fantastic. And in pyramids, we put those fliers up in the air and they begin to make connections and pictures and structures to create an aesthetic yet athletic routine.”
Growing sport in Canada
Coach Kerrie Bourne with Calgary’s Dynasty Cheer Allstars said cheer is growing in Canada.
She said that the move of venues from Lethbridge to Calgary for this year’s competition made it easier for the athletes to attend.
Bourne said that for newcomers coming to watch the sport for the first time, it’s important to come in with an open mind.
“It’s not really going to be like (the movie) Bring it On, or the sidelines cheering that people have come to expect,” Bourne said.
“The skills they are doing are a lot harder than they look, and the athletes go out and make them look easy and they make it look like so much fun. I think the best part of it is, they just look like they’re having the time of their lives.”
Within Canada, there has been some resistance at the provincial government level to recognize cheerleading as a sport. Although as a sport, it was recognized by the International Olympic Committee ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games in 2021.
Within Alberta, cheerleading has been recognized as a sport since the mid-1980s by the Alberta Schools Athletic Association and has been regulated by the Alberta Cheerleading Association since 1988—the year of the Calgary Olympics.
Nationally, the sport has been governed by Cheer Canada since 2005, which regularly sends Team Canada to international competitions.
Increased recognition for the sport at lower levels
Cheerleeding, like other sports, has different divisional levels for the overall skill range of a team and ages of athletes. In cheerleading, those range from level one, which is very restrictive on what can be performed by athletes for safety, to level seven which allows for free flying flips and back handspring full-ups.
Paradee said that at the highest levels, the danger that athletes face is even more than a sport like football.
“We like to take the very slow progress way to keep our athletes safe no matter what they’re doing, but it takes decades for them to get to that level,” she said.
The weekend competition at WinSport covered levels one through 4, which have traditionally not had the same level of recognition or possibility for international competition.
“We’ll be picking nine teams today, and they’ll be going on to another competition in Florida, which is essentially the world’s version of levels [one through four] in cheerleading,” Paradee said.
“There is a competition for athletes in levels five, six and seven, But levels one through four doesn’t really have that opportunity. Some athletes just don’t get that high, but they’re excellent within their own calibre, so we give them that opportunity to compete at all level worlds, which we call the summit.”
For more details on the competition, see the Imagine Cheer & Dance Championship website.