Competitive Cheer is a Sport


Julie Dunnwald

Gaia Gray, EC ’22 (bottom left); Vanessa Caluori, Mount Si ’22 (bottom right); Caiden Bertsch, EC ’22 (far left); and Sydney Louie, Issaquah ’23 (top) perform the final stunt in their 2020-21 stunt series.

Opinion – The stigma surrounding competitive cheerleading is that it is not a sport, but as someone who has been a competitive cheerleader for five years, I would like to argue otherwise.

Competitive cheerleading, usually referred to as all star cheer by those involved in it, is very different from what most people think of when they think of cheerleading. All star cheerleaders only participate in competitions; they do not cheer at any sports games. It is also not associated with any school; cheerleaders come from all over to cheer gyms where they are placed on a competition team based on their level of tumbling and/or stunting.

All star cheer can be summed up as club cheer. Most cheer gyms have multiple teams across different levels and age ranges. Youth is the youngest age group, junior is in the middle, and senior is the oldest. The highest age you can be is 18, unless you are on an open team, which is a topic for another time.

Once you are put in an age group, you are placed on a level from 1, the lowest, to 6, the highest. The level you are put on is based on your stunting (throwing and lifting girls) and/or your tumbling (acrobatics).

I am on the level 5 and 6 teams at Connect Cheer NW. The level 5 team, called Obsidian, has three other guys and 15 girls. The level 6 team is named Twilight and has three other guys and 18 girls. I practice with Twilight from 5:30-7:30pm and then with Obsidian from 7:30-9:30pm on Mondays and Wednesdays and with both of them on Sundays from 11:30am-1:00pm. Double practices are brutal, but worth it for me as I love both of my teams and want to see them do well. A lot of us come in for extra private stunting and/or tumbling lessons, sometimes before or after practices or on off-days.

All level 6 and 7 (open teams) have the goal of getting a bid and competing at Worlds, the invitation-only postseason competition at ESPN in Florida. Level 5 and below teams have the goal of getting a bid and competing at Summit, which is also hosted at ESPN. The fact that ESPN hosts this competition should start convincing you that all star cheer is considered a sport in the athletic community.

As the two highest level teams at my cheer gym, our practices are very intense. We start with stretching and an active warmup before going into toe-tucks. Toe-tucks is a two and a half-minute exercise where we all throw a toe-touch jump and then a standing backflip immediately after landing. We do 10 all together with an 8-count of rest inbetween before we ripple for the remaining time. This is designed to build good cardio for our two and a half-minute routines.

Our routines are what we focus on the most (each team has one routine). We try to pack in as many stunts, tumbling passes, jumps, and motions/dances into two and a half minutes (technically two minutes and 32 seconds, but the last two seconds are usually holding our ending pose). Our routines this year are extremely fast, with few breathing points for most athletes.

I spend most of the first half of my routines stunting, with a little breathing point during jumps and running tumbling before our pyramid (connected group stunts) and dance. I stunt in both a group of 4 total and one-on-one with a flyer. I spend a lot of time outside of cheer working out with my personal trainer who used to be a cheer coach, and with some future US Marines and our recruiters. I have built a lot of upper body strength to make stunts easier and have done a lot of cardio to make my routine easier.

Cheer is also a very mental sport. The very fast nature of the sport and the technical skills required to perform level 5 and 6 stunts and tumbling passes requires a lot of mental toughness and focus during every second of the routines. At competitions, you usually perform on Saturday and Sunday, except at Worlds and Summit where you need to score in the top ten to move on to Sunday. You only get one shot each day to put out the best performance possible. If you mess up, there is nothing you can do.

Unlike a lot of other sports, you can’t make up for your mistakes. It is very hard to recover from dropping a stunt or falling in a tumbling pass. Each mistake takes off points from your scoresheet, which is out of 100. How you execute skills also factors into your score, which is why we build a lot of discipline in everything we do, from how we walk in our routine to how we execute our skills.

The scoring is completely subjective: the judges can score you however you like and it is extremely difficult to fight a score you don’t believe you should have gotten. This is the reason we train so hard and put so much into our routines. We want to put out the hardest and cleanest routines possible so that the judges have to give us a high score.

At practices, we often run our routines “full-out” several times at practice to build endurance and train our minds to handle the stress of doing a fast and hard routine several times. I often come home barely able to walk or carry my bags into my room, but I go through this pain because I love this sport and I want my team to do well this season.

Some of the toughest people I know are competitive cheerleaders, both guys and girls, and many of them are my best friends outside of practices. All of us are in great shape. Many of my teammates have gone on to or have plans to cheer, do gymnastics, or some other sport at the college level. I hope to do Army or Marine ROTC, and cheerleading has helped me build the discipline and strength I need to apply to those programs. I am also considering doing college cheer, in which many teams compete.

If you are still not convinced from my experience that all star cheer is a sport, I challenge you to watch an all star competition or ask a friend to show you a video of one. You could even reach out to me; I’d love to talk more about this sport and educate people on how it is an extremely intense sport.