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.
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.