22 Photos That Will Change The Way You See Cheerleading

The word "cheerleading" doesn’t scream empowerment for most people: Our idea of cheer is sometimes colored by antiquated pop culture tropes of mean girls and perfect, perky blondes waving pom poms around. But to the girls (and boys!) who grow up in the world of competitive cheerleading, the sport is synonymous with strength, self-confidence, and teamwork. Which might sound like some kind of ra-ra (sorry) propaganda, until you meet the athletes themselves. We did just that at this spring's USA Cheerleading Collegiate Championships, and the experience was a testament to just how diverse (and strong) the world of cheer has become.
Held annually in Anaheim, CA, the championships bring together both high school and college cheerleading squads from across the nation to compete in various cheer, stunt, and dance competitions. Thousands of cheerleaders show up and show out, displaying some of the wildest feats of strength and agility you’ve ever seen: We're talking girls tossed in the air by their ankles, caught in one hand, and sent tumbling down the mat, all in the span of one routine. Cheerleading might be the most stunning showcase of simultaneous power, coordination, and teamwork that exists outside of Olympic gymnastics.
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While the cheerleaders are decked out in the expected uniforms of spandex and sparkles, most people would be surprised at the body diversity that exists at the championships. Girls of all shapes and sizes walk around in crop tops and skirts, flanked by young men who range from lanky to bodybuilder status. In cheer, every body has a spot: For instance, bases (the athletes who do most of the person-lifting) are typically more "built," while flyers are tiny and aerodynamic. But regardless of your shape, one quality is necessary across the board: strength. Cheerleading competitions look a whole lot more like powerlifting meets than you might think.
Ahead, you’ll hear from teenagers and college students with a range of body types and disciplines about how cheerleading has helped them become more confident in their own skin: One political science major has a lot to say about how cheerleading informs her future in politics, while other girls just want you to know that cheering is most definitely a sport, and you can meet them on the mat if you don’t like it.
It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
Kaylee McCray from Marina High School in Southern California smiles while practicing backstage before the semi-finals.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"I used to not be comfortable taking my shirt off at practice. But once I gained experience and got to know who my team was, that made me overall more comfortable … Even with hitting stunts, the biggest issue is confidence. That was my biggest pointer. [My teammates] told me, if I knew I was going to hit my stunts, I was going to hit my stunts. Now that I'm not insecure, I hit my stunts."

Paige Huffman, 18 (not pictured)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
A team poses for a group photo immediately after finding out they made it into the finals.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"As a female [studying] Political Science, it's really difficult — sometimes, I'm not taken seriously. [But] on the cheer team, I'm a captain. Being in a leadership role gives me the incentive to put that [leadership] into how I act on a daily basis. The things that you have to do to be a collegiate cheerleader, it's not just being skinny and being pretty. It's incredibly focused around athleticism and skill. It sometimes gets a bad rap, like, 'Oh, you guys just dance around in these tiny outfits. You're being objectified.' Well, first of all, we're in small uniforms, which has nothing to do with us looking hot, we wear these because this is conducive to what we're performing."

Mason Bailey, 21, Boise State University
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
Ja'nea Williams of Grand Canyon University Club Spirit in Arizona waits backstage with her team moments before performing in the finals.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"It's made me a lot more confident. I'm obviously not the most tiny girl, but [cheer helps me focus on] going out there and just being like, forget what I'm doing, let's just come together as a team and put this out on the floor."

Megan Westmyer, 20, GCU Spirit (at right)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"There are girls who could be smaller than me, or girls who could be bigger than me. It's honestly [just about] the way you love your sport. I feel comfortable in my skin. I think everyone should, especially if you're a cheerleader. We're so diverse, it's amazing."

Malaysia King, 22, Long Beach City College (not pictured)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"Cheerleading has definitely pushed me to my limits, and helped me be more body aware.The smaller girls are the easier ones to throw, but you have to be strong. You have to have the fitness required to complete a full two minute and thirty second routine: the cardio, the endurance, [plus] you've got to be able to lift people, you've got to be able to flip yourself. You have to have all of these crazy muscles to be able to do this. It's pretty physically demanding."

Lyla, 20, New Mexico State
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"The encouragement and the family atmosphere that our team has helps us express our feelings. We do different team bonding activities that create a family environment."

Marissa, 17 (at right)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
A woman holds her team's semi-finals trophy.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"I used to be really insecure about myself, but now I'm out here and I'm loving it. And I love myself."

DeeDee, 18, GCU Spirit (not pictured)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"Cheerleading has helped me be more comfortable because there [are so many] different spots in a routine and different spots on a team. If you're short, there's a spot for you. If you're tall, there's a spot for you. If you're chunky, there's a spot for you. If you're skinny, there's a spot for you. No matter what, there's always somewhere where you can go, where you can be used. I'm strong, so I'm a base. I've gotten flexible, so I can fly now. I've gotten stronger in my legs. Cheerleading has a spot for everyone, no matter who you are."

Malaysia (not pictured)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
Teammates from Texas State — Brea Shaw (L) and Jacquelyn Doughty (R) — lock together in a group prayer moments before going out onstage to perform in the finals.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"This is what I love to do, and female empowerment is [about] supporting whatever anyone likes to do. It's not supposed to be a certain box that you're supposed to fit into. Cheerleaders just want to cheer everyone on. It's awesome to feel empowered to raise those spirits when so much of [what's going on in the world] is bringing other people down."

Mason (not pictured)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"We never put anyone down, so everyone is welcome. We're very encouraging and really friendly. Cheer has really helped me — a couple of years ago, I was really insecure about my body. And then coming into cheer, I made a lot of friends, and they helped me through all of that."

Christina, 17 (not pictured)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"Being in that [competitive cheer] environment for so long, you learn to accept how your body looks, how other people perceive your body. We practice in sports bras and spandex, like, what you see is like what you are. We use our bodies as tools instead of something to look at."

Lauren, 17
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
A team celebrates after completing their first day at the comp and learning that they would be moving on to the finals.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
Two teammates cry tears of joy moments after finding out their final performance put them in first place.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
Bailey Hill, 20, stretches before heading to the practice area with her team.
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"I haven't been in one cheer program that has been demeaning to an individual. Everyone's been very uplifting, and we all work together to better ourselves for each other. Nothing's ever really for our own personal gain — it's all to make the team stronger or to make the program stronger."

Lauren, 17 (not pictured)
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Photographed by Michelle Groskopf
"We love each other. It's all about having fun and being there for each other, regardless of how you look, regardless of your color, regardless of any of that. [Through cheer] I started to love myself, enjoy myself, know that I'm an athlete regardless of how my body compares to the person next to me."

Evynn Richards, 20, California Baptist University (not pictured)
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