Emerging from the SIDELINES

Months of strength training in the gym. Seemingly endless sets of punishing push ups and sit ups.

Painful stretching exercises to maximize flexibility.

And the occasional broken nose at practice.

No, this is not dry land training for a bunch of burly hockey players, or pre-season workouts for a beefy football team.

It’s the training schedule for a group of elite cheerleaders who belong to the Tsawwassen-based Westcoast Cheer organization.

That’s right, cheerleading.

But don’t be fooled into conjuring an image of pom poms and boosting the players on the field with timely chants, a practice commonly referred to as “sideline cheerleading.”

This new kind—called “power cheer”—is all about the performance and combines athleticism, strength, endurance, timing, teamwork, discipline and courage.

“Yes, it’s much more than just having a pretty face,” said Briar Wilson, assistant director with Westcoast Cheer, who started out as a sideline cheerleader at South Delta Secondary. “Sometimes when you’re doing stunts it’s like weight lifting, only you’re throwing people up into the air.”

And you do happen to get the occasional elbow in the wrong place.

“Yes, there’s been the odd broken nose,” Wilson said, admitting accidents can happen in any sport when athletes are striving to do their best to perfect their performance. “It’s just that when a football or hockey player gets hurt, no one really pays much attention. But when a cheerleader does, it gets blown out of proportion.”

Sport or art form?

But that’s where the line blurs for power cheer.

Is it a sport? Or is it entertainment?

South of the border, cheer competitions are major league to such an extent as to borders on official sport status.

And even in Canada, interest is on the rise and its stature is steadily growing.

Wilson said it’s her hope power cheer receives the respect it deserves as a full fledged sport—maybe one day even attaining Olympic Games status—since the demands placed on its elite performers are not unlike those on figure skaters, gymnasts and synchronized swimmers.

Locals will get a chance to see what power cheer is all about first hand next Saturday (Feb. 17) when the gym at South Delta Secondary becomes cheerleading central in the Lower Mainland.

That’s when the “Feel the Power” event hosted by Westcoast Cheer is expected to draw an estimated 2,000 cheerleaders—plus about as many spectators—to the community.

The event will showcase teams from across the Lower Mainland all day.

Spectators will be impressed as teams complete their two and a half minute performances in front of a five-member panel of judges, Wilson said.

“It may be only two and a half minutes, but by the end you’re really ready to finish,” Wilson said, adding the stamina and technique required to put on a winning performance parallels other high level sports.

And since power cheer is constantly evolving, the bar for performance is always rising.

“It used to be you had a team pull off a stunt (an intricate move showing flexibility and strength) then come down to the ground. Then pull off another stunt then again come back to the ground,” Wilson said. “Now, there’s something going on all the time. Tumbling, stunts—it’s pretty much constant motion.”

And to pull off the routines requires some heavy duty commitment on part of the power cheer squad members.

Strength training through the summer off season usually runs 10 hours a week, including an hour of cardio and flexibility work. Practices to run through routines examine the smallest details to nail timing and positioning.

And trust building and team work is critical, since some stunts can have members lofted 15 to 20 feet in the air with the expectation their teammates will catch them.

“That’s a long way up in the air, so there’s an awful lot of teamwork and trust you have to build up,” Wilson said. “So you’ve got to leave all your problems behind at the gym door and focus on what you want to accomplish.”

Despite the high demands of time and discipline, local interest in power cheer has grown dramatically.

Wilson said a decade ago there were roughly 20 local girls turning out for cheerleading.

Today, there are about 200, with some of them coming from as far away as North Delta, Richmond and the North Shore to get involved with Westcoast Cheer.

And they are drawn by the fact organization has become one of the most successful cheerleading groups in the Lower Mainland.

n Feel the Power, Feb. 17 at South Delta Secondary, will feature 2,000 Lower Mainland cheerleaders in competition, from 9:30 a.m. to 6:15 p.m.

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