Stories by VIVIENNE WONG
FOR many, Disney World in Florida, the United States is “the happiest place on earth” – and it’s particularly true for the five cheerleaders of Team Malaysia because it’s the venue for this year’s International Cheer Union (ICU) World Cheerleading Championships.
The girls – Theng Kai Yee, 17, Yap Kah Man, 16, Saw Li Jing, 17, Fiorentina Poh Cheng Li, 17, and Goh See Yan, 17 – will be making the trip of a lifetime there later this week to represent Malaysia in the championship, one of the most prestigious cheerleading events in the world.
Last year, Team Malaysia ranked ninth out of 18 teams that competed in the All Girl Group Stunt division. This time around, coach Tan Yee Ming, hopes the new line up will also land at the top half of the standings, if not better.
To achieve that, the 28-year-old coach believes a higher level of difficulty is needed. And as one of the 20 judges on the panel this year, Tan added that the teams would also be judged based on stunt execution, the fluidity of the routines and most importantly, the overall impression of the routine. As technical as the sport can be, the routines still need to be exciting and entertaining.
But regardless of the simplicity of the routines, a perfectly solid one will definitely do the trick in impressing the judges. And that’s Team Malaysia’s main goal.
“We try to play to our flyer’s strengths, which is her flexibility. She can do a bit of gymnastics. We try to incorporate that into the routine to stand out and be more unique,” said Tan, who has been preparing the girls since January by training every Friday and Saturday.
Since cheerleading routines often involve impressive stunts, injuries are inevitable. The team’s flyer, Yap, was hurt three years ago and it has been causing her problems ever since.
“I first sprained my ankle in 2011 and after that, I’ve sprained it over and over, and it hurts sometimes. If it’s in the middle of a competition routine, I have to wait until the routine is over to rest the ankle,” said Yap, who has been cheering for four years.
However, Tan is confident they won’t get injured during practice because “they should be performing a solid enough routine by now.” Nevertheless, in the event one of them does get seriously injured, they have a substitute.
“One of the bases is an extra, so she can replace one of the other bases if necessary. But we only have one flyer, so if she gets injured, she just has to wrap it up, spray it down, tahan (bear the pain) and get on with it because it’d be a real shame to travel all the way there and not compete. So, we always try our best to be safe so she can perform,” said Tan.
Travelling to Florida won’t be cheap, with flight and accommodation coming up to around RM8,000 to RM10,000 per person. And because the Cheerleading Association and Register of Malaysia (CHARM) is a non-profit organisation, they aren’t able to fund the girls, leaving them to cover the expenses on their own.
But according to Theng and Yap, their parents are very supportive and are more than willing to fund their dreams, which Tan sees as a huge boost for Malaysian cheerleading as the girls will be able to bring their experience back to the local scene.
The team’s back spot, Theng, is the only girl left from last year’s team. “It was a good experience because I saw a lot of other teams that were really good and I definitely learnt and got inspiration from them,” she said.
But before Malaysian teams could even dream about competing overseas, there was a little competition in Malaysia called CHEER (organised annually by *ahem* R.AGE), which started 15 years ago. Tan credits CHEER as one of the main drivers of the local cheerleading scene, which now has various professional teams who compete internationally throughout the year. In fact, all five Team Malaysia members – and Tan herself – cut their teeth on CHEER.
What most people don’t know about cheerleading, said Tan, is that it creates a sense of team spirit like no other sport.
“If you play basketball and there’s no teamwork, maybe you’ll miss a basket or two. But with cheerleading, you’re throwing a friend way up in the air, and you have to be there to catch her. That really teaches the athletes a lot about trust and team spirit,” said Tan, adding that the sport also has a very positive culture, with fans regularly cheering rival teams’ routines during tournaments.
The positivity is definitely a great influence on the cheerleaders’ lives.
“I used to be quite a shy person. But cheerleading has made a huge impact on my life. It really boosted my confidence,” said Theng.
“And it’s all about teamwork. A lot of people think cheerleaders are catty and stuff, but in reality, you have to trust your team-mates and learn to get along with them, because if you have disagreements in the team, it won’t work out.