‘People will realise that it’s a badass sport!’

Competitive cheerleading has been granted provisional status as an Olympic sport by the International Olympic Committee, paving the way for it to be introduced as a demonstration event before potentially becoming part of the Summer Games programme.

But should ‘cheer’ be seen as a sport at all, and does it really warrant Olympic inclusion?

Oliver Norgrove sat down with Alison Dominguez, president of the University of the Arts London’s cheerleading squad, The Royals, to discuss its Olympic potential, stereotypes and the hidden intensity behind a much-misunderstood pursuit.

…on the Olympics

ON: So as you know, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has given cheerleading provisional recognition as a sport. How did you react to this?

AD: I thought it was awesome. Aside from the fact that cheer is so physically and mentally hard, you have to deal with everybody else telling you that it’s not a sport, that it’s just for girls, and all this stuff which isn’t true.

The football boys in our school always give us trouble and they’re like ‘Why don’t you guys play a real sport?’ and I say ‘You guys wouldn’t last 10 minutes in practice’ – it’s really hard, and to finally get that recognition internationally was so good.

UAL's cheerleading squad The Royals

UAL’s cheerleading squad The Royals

ON: Do you feel the provisional status should go further?

AD: Absolutely. Cheer is not what it was 50 years ago. It’s not about dancing around and shouting ‘Go team!’ It’s physically demanding. I think it’s just as hard as any other recognised sport, per se.

ON: Do you think that cheerleading lacks the respect it deserves, and will the IOC’s decision change that?

AD: I hope so. I think yes and no. Some people will stick to their stereotypical opinions, as it’s one of the most stereotyped sports in the world. When I tell people I’m a cheerleader they’re like ‘Oh, like in the American movies?’. I’m like: ‘Not really no.’ But I think it will.

ON: If cheerleading does become an Olympic sport, how do you think public perception will change?

AD: The Olympics is one of the most watched television events. When the top cheerleaders showcase their skills to the world, people will be like: ‘Oh, that’s what cheerleading is!’

They’ll realise it’s not just jumping around and that it’s really difficult. I mean, we [The Royals] only do level 2, but when you get up to level 6 with the best of the best, it’s crazy stuff. It’s like three-tier pyramids, triple back flips in the air, and they just make it look effortless and they smile the whole time!

It’s really entertaining too, so I think people will realise that it’s not just really difficult, but really cool too.

ON: Are you confident that cheerleading will make it to the Olympics?

AD: I am, yeah. Maybe not this time around, but definitely in the future.

…on the physical demands of cheerleading

ON: Can you give us an idea of the physical demands that are involved in cheerleading?

AD: I would say that the hardest thing we do is tumbling and stunting. Tumbling is the floor stuff you do in gymnastics, handsprings, that kind of thing, backhand springs and that’s difficult in and of itself, especially if you didn’t grow up doing gymnastics.

“Cheerleading isn’t for everybody, I know that, just like football or rugby aren’t for everybody, but what’s the worst that can happen? You watch it and you don’t like it”

It’s really difficult to train a 20-year-old body to do a backhand spring, rather than a 12-year-old body because they just kind of throw themselves. The stunting, which is my favourite bit, is designed so you can throw a person in the air and make it look effortless and pretty, and it’s so difficult.

A typical stunt consists of two bases which hold the majority of the weight of the flyer, and a back which secures the stunt – they stand at the back to make sure no one falls. So the three of you at the bottom are holding up a girl who isn’t that much lighter than you and you’re making it look really effortless.

That’s really hard because she flies on like one leg and you pull shapes, that’s where the flexibility comes in.

ON: It sounds like a cross between dance and gymnastics

AD: Very much so. There actually is a section of a cheer team where you do dance. It’s not your typical dance, it’s very much hard motions. I always tell my girls that if you’re hitting your motions and it doesn’t hurt then you’re doing it wrong. Your muscles should always be really tight.

I really work my flyers to death because if you have a good flyer then they can get themselves up in the air, then it’s just up to the base to keep them there.

If you have a lazy flyer who relies on the fact that they’re light, it’s so much more work on the bases. I have a lot of flyers that weigh like 43kg, but then I have flyers who weight 50kg – who I prefer flying because they do so much more work, as they’re stronger.

…on her personal experiences 

ON: Can I ask you about your current participation in the sport of cheerleading?

AD: Right now I am the president of our university’s cheerleading squad, The Royals. I coach us once a week, we have another external coach once a week also, and I’ve been on the team for two years. I do tumbling outside of cheer with some of the girls just to improve, too.

ON: Which do you prefer, the coaching or the taking part?

“Competitive cheer has developed into this super-demanding sport where you don’t focus just on the appearance aspect”

AD: I prefer taking part. I really do like coaching a lot, but I am here to be on the team and enjoy participating.

ON: I imagine that both are deceptively hard?

AD: Very much so. I definitely didn’t anticipate coaching being as much work as it is – and it’s hard when you’re the president as well. If you don’t plan for practice then it isn’t happening, if you don’t pay for competitions then you’re not going, if you don’t nag all the girls to do X, Y, Z then it’s not going to happen.

ON: Why and when did you take it up? What makes you continue?

AD: I grew up overseas and bounced from sport to sport. I didn’t commit to one thing because I was moving every two years.

I did rugby for a bit, gymnastics for a bit, football for a bit, and then I moved to the States for my freshman year of high school, and for the first time ever cheerleading was an option. I kind of fancied it because of the whole stereotypical, high school movie stuff.

So I made the team and just sort of fell in love with the physicality of the sport. It is so challenging both physically and mentally and being a part of a team that’s so much better than yourself is just so rewarding. It was just one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

…on stigma and public understanding

ON: If it’s so difficult, why have cheerleading’s legitimacy and its merits been ignored or mocked?

AD: It’s a lot to do with what cheer used to be. It was predominantly a way for high school girls to get on the field and cheer on the boys.

There’s nothing wrong with people who want to do that, but competitive cheer is not that anymore, it has developed into this super-demanding sport where you don’t focus just on the appearance aspect of it.

ON: How is cheerleading changing?


The Royals in action

AD: I think it’s beginning to be taken a lot more seriously by people. A lot of money is going into it, so people are looking for the best stunters, the best tumblers and for athletes that are really strong who can make teams better and better.

What you have is an industry that is taking all these athletes and teaching them how to stunt and cheer dance. All of this is being put together to create some really crazy routines.

ON: If you could make the public understand one thing about cheerleading, what would it be?

AD: There’s so much, but I really just want people to understand that if you think gymnastics is a sport, if you think dance is a sport then why do you not think cheer is a sport? Competitive cheer, anyway.

ON: What are the obstacles that cheerleading needs to overcome in order to engage with a more mainstream audience and enhance its profile?

AD: I think it’s a bit of funding and a bit of public image. In America, cheer is a huge industry and a lot of money goes into it. If the Olympics wanted teams then America would have it, but a lot of other countries have to catch up.

It’s still really up-and-coming so there’s obviously the money problem, and there’s also the problem of convincing people to give you the money because it’s a cool sport and people should take it seriously.

…on the future

ON: What are your own future cheer or coaching ambitions?

AD: I want to do all-star cheer after university. London has really good programmes and I would love to coach my own team one day. Coaching at the Olympics would be really cool.

ON: Are you hopeful for the future of cheerleading?

AD: I am. I think once people understanding the sport, see what it’s about and understand the athletes in the sport, they will understand that it’s a badass sport and its worthy of people’s time.

Cheerleading isn’t for everybody, I know that, just like football or rugby aren’t for everybody, but what’s the worst that can happen? You watch it and you don’t like it.

For more information, visit the British Cheerleading Association website, or the International Cheer Union site. Images courtesy of UAL’s Royals cheerleading squad.