Taking cheerleading to the extreme

Local athletes show there's much more to the sport than pom-poms

Twelve girls from Hope are members of the Fusion Athletics Cheerleading Club

Twelve girls from Hope are members of the Fusion Athletics Cheerleading Club

It’s known as one of the most dangerous sports in the world, yet a dozen girls from Hope make the trip to Chilliwack as many as three times a week to practice their cheerleading routines.

If you’re wondering how shaking a pom-pom can put you in a wheelchair or worse, you probably haven’t noticed a big change since the 1980s, when all-star cheerleaders switched from cheering for sports teams and created routines that were athletic feats in their own right.

“A lot of people think it’s just pom-pom shaking,” said coach Craig Tolmie. “But it’s an extreme workout that takes six months to perfect. There are no pom-poms anymore.

“It’s fun — but you have to take it seriously,” he cautioned. “When you’re holding someone over your head, there’s no excuse for dropping someone just because your wrist is sore.

“We use a sprung floor… but it’s like putting plywood on a trampoline. It still hurts!”

Tolmie has a gymnastics background — and choreographed gymnastics, dance and pyramids are the main components of modern “cheer.” It was his daughter, Haley, who showed an interest in the sport, so Craig looked into it and got a group started, called Fusion Athletics Cheerleading. That was eight years ago.

Now, the group has grown to about 120 athletes, aged 5 to 19, training in a warehouse facility on Enterprise Drive in Chilliwack.

Fusion Athletics sends groups to about six competitions per year, mostly in the Lower Mainland or Washington State — but a group of 20 just got back from the National Cheerleading Association’s All-Star Nationals in Dallas, Texas. Madison Marshall, Autumn Perry-White, Sydney Pellegrino and Shayla Ottesen traveled from Hope for the March 1-2 event.

The girls have been to some big competitions before — but none as big as this one.

“It’s the Super Bowl of cheerleading,” said Madison’s dad, Steve.

“There were 25,000 cheerleaders and 38,000 spectators,” said Madison.

Teams were grouped according to size and ability level. Levels 1 to 4 performed in smaller venues, while special needs and the top tier — level 5 — were showcased in the main arena of the Dallas Convention Center.

Madison explained, “Usually, we train as a level 4 team — but we went as level 2, so we could max out and get a higher score.”

Training at level 4 means two or three 2-hour sessions a week, plus extra workouts at home to build strength and stamina for the high-paced two-and-a-half-minute performance.

It also means no compromises on the quest for perfection.

A practice starts off with 20 laps around the gym, said Madison. “And we run ‘suicides,’ which are two sets of eight lines.”

Then there are the push-ups.

“We have to do 50 push-ups for any drop or goof-ups,” said 17 year-old Madison, who is Hope’s most experienced cheer athlete, at six years with the club. “These are full-length push-ups. It’s 100 if you do knee push-ups.”

That’s okay with 15 year-old Perry-White, who is one of seven ‘flyers’ who get lifted and tossed. For her, the less mistakes, the better.

“Our record is 450 in one practice,” said Ottesen, a second-year member.

Four hundred fifty push-ups? These girls are tough.

“And we never have a perfect practice,” added Madison.

Down in Dallas, the Fusion team was up against 15 others, including one from Australia. After their Saturday performance, Fusion was in fourth place… and they held their position after Sunday’s performance, with a team from California coming from behind with a top-place program on their second day.

“Things went great,” said coach Tolmie, after returning home on Tuesday. “Fourth place was a very respectable place. We were up against the best teams in the world.

“We did have a slight bobble in day 2, but that would not have affected our placement. We did however hold our place on day 2, due to the overall performance of the second day.

“The girls realize that things can happen, but it’s a team thing, and how easily slips can happen.

“As a coach, I realized that training kids the right way, creates the team unity and love needed to ‎accomplish a major goal. These girls have had their battles this year, but always pulled together and worked it out.

“Even though their want for first-place was not met, the life experience to go to such a huge event — and meet some of the “cheer-lebrity” and grow as a team — was the gold they brought home.”

Next up: the Sea to Sky Nationals in Vancouver in April.

To learn more about Fusion Athletics — and to see videos of their Dallas performances — see their Facebook page at facebook.com/FusionAthleticsCheerleading