Behind the scenes as cheerleading works to prove it should be an Olympic sport

ORLANDO — LeRoy McCullough had his phone out, shooting photo and video of this raucous parade of athletes from around the world, when everyone slowed. McCullough watched as the members of Team USA, here for the opening ceremony of the World Cheerleading Championships, quieted and turned their eyes to the giant screen across the field house. He is the national team’s coach, his latest stop in a sport he discovered as a student at South Carolina in the ’90s. He couldn’t have imagined this back then as he spent hours practicing, standing so his teammates could hold onto tree limbs as he held them in the air, working to perfect his grip.

McCullough turns his phone and begins to make a video of the video featuring Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, welcoming cheerleading to the Olympic family. The audience is rapt.

Cheerleading was elevated on the international scene in December, when the IOC granted it provisional status and putting it on the path for possible inclusion in the 2024 Olympics. The announcement had felt surreal but impersonal for McCullough when the news broke. Seeing Bach’s face on the giant screens on this late-April night at the HP Field House — surrounded by the best cheerleaders from all over the world, there for the biggest celebration of their craft at Walt Disney World — made it real for McCullough.

He will have little free time over the next three days as he prepares for the USA coed squad to defend the title it has only ever lost once. But in his spare moments he calls the video up, watching again and again.

As exhilarating as Bach’s message is, it also brings new pressure: Cheerleading now has to prove it is Olympic-ready. These world championships need to show that cheerleading, a sport born on the sidelines of football games, is now big — and internationally diverse — enough to be included in the most important international competition.

McCullough’s team is the heavy favorite to win, but in cheerleading, like any performance sport, a routine can go wrong quickly. So many of the stunts and pyramids cheerleaders perform are based on perfect timing, and every single piece of the puzzle hitting their mark. If one person misses, if one person is a half a second late, even the most talented team can fall apart.

McCullough wants to see his sport in the Olympics, but for right now, his main concern is seeing his team perfectly execute its routine. It is packed with basket tosses — when a group of cheerleaders throw one in the air, and the flyer does a flip, twist or split before falling into the throwers’ arms — partner stunts, pyramids and tumbling.

LeRoy McCullough watches his team practice. (International Cheer Union)

Cheerleading never started out with Olympic dreams. It grew up alongside football, starting at the University of Minnesota in 1898. Male yell leaders would teach the crowd cheers and use jumps and megaphones to rile them up. As women became involved in the 1920s, and as cheerleading squads tried to come up with more inventive ways to lead the crowd, cheerleaders started to attend clinics and camps where they learned about pyramids and partner stunts. Competitions started in the late ’60s and made the airwaves for the first time in 1978, marking the change of cheerleading from solely a sideline activity to a competitive sport.

In the 1980s and ’90s, cheerleading grew rapidly. Competitions became a mainstay on ESPN, and cheerleading gyms featuring All-Star teams — teams with no connection to sideline cheering — began to pop up around the country. Though cheering for games is still part of a school cheerleader’s job, competition is an equally important part. The same cheerleaders who are on the sidelines at Kentucky and Alabama games are competing for national championships. A few of them are even competing for Team USA.

Cheerleading started to move internationally in the ’90s, leading to the founding of the International Cheer Union in 2004. Jeff Webb, ICU’s president and the founder of cheerleading brand Varsity — the maker of virtually every cheerleading uniform worn — has pushed for international recognition because it’s one of the only ways the sport can grow in other countries. In the U.S., sports are not supported by the government, but in the rest of the world, international recognition means it can get government funding.

(International Cheer Union)

“We want it to be a grassroots sport. We don’t want it to be an elitist sport. We’d all love to be soccer. What does it take to play soccer? A ball and four soda cans,” Webb said. “That’s how it’s played in a lot of places. You can play it in the street. That’s what they did. That’s not as feasible but we’re doing everything we can to develop the sport so you don’t need a lot of equipment.”

Performance sports are nothing new to the Olympics. Gymnastics was a part of the first Olympic Games. Figure skating debuted in 1908, and synchronized swimming first became part of the Olympics in 1984.

“We think that based on the 2020 initiative that we’re positioned pretty well. We have large teams, and that’s a challenge. When you look at the things that are identified as attractive for the Olympic movement, we have strong female participation, skews young, it’s entertaining, it does well on television,” Webb said.

Cheerleading squads are big — 20-28 members — and while the 2020 Initiative hasn’t capped the number of sports, it has capped the number of athletes. The IOC could vote to fully recognize cheerleading at any point over the next three years while it has provisional status (and the IOC funding that comes along with it, meant to grow the sport.) Cheerleading could then petition for entry in the Olympics.

But cheerleading is also still proving itself in the United States. While the sport’s growth has been exponential in the past decade, with more than three million boys, girls, men and women cheering in 2015, it still is quite often seen as something that only belongs on the sidelines.

“In so many parts of the country, they don’t know what our style of cheerleading is. A lot of it has to do with professional sports, and whether it’s the NBA or NFL, their cheerleaders may be very talented, but what they’re known for in most places, is skimpy outfits,” Webb said. “They’re not really cheerleaders. They’re dancers. They’re not really leading the crowd. The serious athletic cheerleading, they haven’t been exposed to it.”

(International Cheer Union)

But there’s no doubting the athleticism of Team USA as it competes during semifinals on Thursday night. McCullough’s team takes the floor at the packed 5,000-seat field house, with rows of folding chairs full of cheerleading VIPs right in front of the cheerleaders. Behind the VIPs, on risers with a perfect view of the action, sit a panel of 10 judges.

Emily Sawyer, one of the members of Team USA who cheered for Kentucky before becoming a nurse, looks to her teammates, smiles, then jumps into their hands, woven together into a basket. The men — who could easily be mistaken for linebackers — toss her straight up as they begin to chant. “LET’S GO U-S-A! RED! WHITE! BLUE!” Sawyer, carrying white pompons, spreads her body into an X in the air as “WHITE” is yelled, and then tucks together to do a backflip. Her long, blond ponytail streams behind her as she gently falls into the arms of the teammates who just threw her.

A full house chants along as Team USA continues to throw gravity-defying stunts. Music begins to play, and the routine picks up to a dizzying pace. Tumbling, dancing and stunts that just don’t seem humanly possibly are thrown one after another. The squad finishes with a pyramid where two men hold another man who is holding up three women — one sitting his shoulders and one with each arm.

The routine is perfect, and the U.S. finishes ahead of Chinese Taipei in the coed division semifinals. But the competition is far from over. Team USA will have to hit the routine again on Friday to win it all. The scores from semifinals don’t count for finals, but are only used to cut down the number of competitors between rounds.

The cheerleaders currently representing Team USA probably won’t be on the team if it gets Olympic status. The sports for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo are already decided. The earliest cheerleading could make its Olympic debut is 2024, and most of Team USA is either still in college — cheering mostly for SEC and Big 12 schools — or recently graduated.

Emily Sawyer and Ryan Claunch at practice (International Cheer Union)

The athleticism required for competitive cheerleading takes its toll on the body — and there’s no system in place that would allow a cheerleader to focus on his or her sport. Once they graduate college, almost all of them launch separate careers that would prevent them from training at an elite level. So if these cheerleaders can’t make it to the Olympics, they want to lay the groundwork for the younger cheerleaders they watched compete for America. Fifty of the top American Cheerleaders aged 12-16 are competing at Worlds; a day later 193 teams will come to Orlando for a the most prestigious All-Star competition in cheerleading.

“We were watching the junior teams, and they’re so great. They’re the future of the sport. They look up to us and in reality, we’re looking up to them!” said Whitney Agee, a member of Team USA and a cheerleader for the University of Kentucky. “To know they might have that chance, we might not, our bodies might not hold up, but they might have that chance. It’s so amazing to watch.”

One criterion the IOC uses when deciding if a sport is Olympic material is if the sport is international enough. It needs to be sponsored by more than one country on every continent to be considered.

The international flavor of the sport is evident by the impromptu language lessons that happen in so many routines. Sweden first encourages the crowd to yell, “Bla uch guld” before flipping their signs over and yelling “Blue and gold!” Chile yells the so-catchy-it-won’t-leave-your-head, “CHI CHI CHI! LE LE LE! VAMOS CHILE!” Soccer songs and vuvuzuelas make their appearance between every performance. Fans wave flags from all over the world. English fans wear paper masks of members of the Royal Family, while Mexican fans don sombreros.

Both thanks to reputation, and their performance at semifinals, Team USA are the stars at worlds. On the morning of finals, as they practice at the resort where all the teams are staying, fans and competitors flock around them to watch. They even stand on the balconies of the hotel low-rises, recording performances with their phone. As the practice breaks up, people stop cheerleaders for selfies and to talk shop.

They’re asked about technique and how they manage to make certain stunts work. Cheerleading is a sport of constant innovation. The stunts that won the world championships last year won’t work this year as every team tries to outdo each other and come up with something no one has seen before.

“In baseball, it’s different. You want to hit it over the fence. You want to get that home run. You want to catch that fly ball. You want to get your records up,” said Agee. “In cheerleading, it’s different. There’s always a cooler transition or something to create.”

Whitney Love during the Team USA routine. (International Cheer Union)

The Americans, who stay in touch while they’re not training together with McCullough and each other on a GroupMe account, are expected to bring something new to worlds every year. They won it in 2016, and have high hopes to repeat their title. They are keenly aware they’re expected to be ambassadors of a sport that is in a crucial moment.

“It is important because in a way cheerleading was created here. Do I think we’re above any standard or anything? Absolutely not. But I do think we can come together to be innovative and creative and inspirational,” said Whitney Love, a two-year member of Team USA and a former cheerleader at Oklahoma State. “It’s something we try to do for other people, that we do for them, make them say, I want to be like that. It inspires us to continue to work harder.”

But on Friday night, they don’t resemble the invincible team that took the floor Thursday. It’s the same routine, and it’s just as difficult as the night before, but one stunt falls. Another stunt is bobbled. Like in figure skating and gymnastics, mistakes don’t always sink a team. It depends on what the competition brings.

Chinese Taipei is the one team who has beaten the United States since worlds started in 2009. In 2015, the U.S. was sloppy, and dropped its final pyramid, the last image a judge sees before giving a final score. Chinese Taipei took advantage of the American mistakes and walked away with gold.

This time around, Chinese Taipei looks good, but not great. They have timing mistakes and drop a few stunts. It’s not a slam dunk for either team. The two teams stand together as results are read, and neither looks particularly confident their team will win.

As cheerleading tries to move to Olympic status, cheerleaders may have to become full-time athletes, like the Olympic hopefuls who train at USOC facilities around the country. They’re not quite there yet. Team USA is a mixture of college students like Agee who cheer for their schools and recent graduates who balance training with, well, grown-up life.

(International Cheer Union)

Love recently married one of her fellow cheerleaders from Oklahoma State, and isn’t quite sure what cheerleading’s role will be in her life when she has children. Sawyer is a labor and delivery nurse, and has to switch between working the night shift at University of Kentucky hospital and practicing with the day shift when she goes into training camp.

“It’s almost like you’re living two separate lives. The chaos of there, and coming back to work. I’m kind of figuring out my new identity as a nurse. I’ve really never worked before. Cheerleading has been my job. It paid for my school,” Sawyer said. “I wasn’t sure if my work would allow me to do USA, I was like, I don’t know who I am! It’s all I’ve known in my life. It’s still an adjustment. It’s my passion, cheerleading and nursing both.”

The first night she was back in Lexington after worlds, her fellow nurses told her how they gathered around a computer to watch her compete. They hugged her, congratulated her, and then went back to work. Four days after performing at the world championship, Sawyer tended to four mothers-to-be, and assisted with one delivery.

Stashed in her work bag is what she gets to show off to the other nurses — a gold medal. Even as teams from all over the world get better and better — sometimes with the U.S.A.’s help — the best cheerleaders in the world are still, for now, here. The medal confirms she is a world champion of cheerleading. Whether an Olympic medal is in her — or cheerleading’s — future is still up in the air, like a cheerleader tossed skyward, flipping and spinning, hoping the hands set to catch her are right where they need to be.

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