By CHRISTINE CHEAH
THERE were 550 cheerleading teams, 6,000 cheerleaders, hundreds of organising staff, thousands of spectators and countless insane, gravity-defying stunts. In the middle of all that craziness, was a group of 25 Malaysians, all dreaming of doing their country proud.
The cheerleaders of the Awesome All-Stars had travelled all the way to Melbourne, Australia for the 2013 Australian All-Star Cheerleading Federation (AASCF) National Cheer and Dance Championship, where they would come up against some of the world’s best athletes in the sport.
As the organisers of CHEER, the country’s biggest cheerleading competition, R.AGE was given a spot on that AirAsia X plane to Melbourne, where we were able to follow team Awesome’s incredible journey from semi-pro cheerleaders competing their hearts out in CHEER, to mixing it with the big boys (and girls) on the international stage.
And yes, they did do Malaysia proud.
For many members of the Awesome All-Stars, the AASCF Nationals would be their first trip overseas. The talented team was formed just three years ago, by local cheerleading company Cheer Aspirations, and it was only their seventh competition together.
Nevertheless, most of the members had grown up competing in the fiercely-contested annual CHEER finals, so they know a thing or two about intense competition, and putting on a big performance when it matters most.
In fact, most of the team were 15 to 16-year-olds still performing with some of CHEER’s best teams – Calyx from SM(J)K Katholik, Vulcanz from SMK Seafield, D*Starz from SMK (P) Sri Aman and Mickeymitez and Dynamitez from SMK Damansara Jaya, among others.
Team Awesome’s battle started even before the competition began. The cheerleaders searched high and low for sponsors, finally finding the perfect partner in AirAsia X, who put team Awesome on one of their two daily flights to Melbourne, and got them free accommodation at the spanking new Tune Hotel there, the first in Australia.
Intensive training started over a month before the competition, with coach Tan Yee Ming from Cheer Aspirations putting the team through three sessions a week, with each session lasting three hours. Doesn’t sound like much until you consider that they’re mostly teenagers (the youngest member is 13), and they have to be extremely hard-working to balance school and cheer practice.
But the biggest complication came on the day the team were to fly off to Melbourne. It was only after checking in at the AirAsia X counter at LCCT that the team found out one of the cheerleaders would not be able to travel due to visa complications. That was just two days before the competition.
“We had to rework the whole routine to compete without him,” lamented Tan. “We had some reserve members with us, but none of them were able to perform his role, so we changed everything.”
The team had just one practice session at a gym in Flagstaff Garden to work on their new, modified routine. As usual with cheerleading, there was a cheerleader carrying an injury – a flyer who had sprained an ankle in practice. Two were struggling with fever. However, there was nothing that would keep Team Awesome down.
The sheer size of the AASCF Nationals was mind-boggling. The warm-up hall alone was the size of about four badminton courts, with three different mats for different types of warm-ups. A long, narrow mat, for example, was for cheerleaders to work on their tumbling.
With 550 teams, all going one after the other, teams weren’t allowed to linger around the warm-up mats. You move through the mats doing your thing, and you get out of the way for the next team.
After that, you have about 15 minutes to calm your nerves. And then it’s show time.
Considering the last-minute changes, the Awesome All-Stars were, well, awesome. They finished third in the International Level Five Open Division. Team members Choon Chen Wah, 28, and Lim Yee Thong, 16, also participated in the Partner Stunt category, but they didn’t manage to win.
But for coach Tan Yee Ming, the result wasn’t really important.
“We felt it would be great for the cheerleaders to experience competing at a higher level, to feel what it’s like competing in front of over 6,000 other cheerleaders,” said Tan, a former CHEER participant and all-star cheerleader herself.
The team also attended some cheerleading clinics and coaching conferences organised by the AASCF the day after the competition.
Awesome All-Stars captain Magdalene Lim, 20, said being part of an all-star cheerleading team is always a good experience.
“I’ve captained the team three times so far, and we have competed in Singapore and Japan before. Competitive cheerleading is so exciting, and I enjoy the camaraderie among the cheerleaders,” said the HELP University student.
From CHEER to all stars
As competitive as the annual CHEER competition may be, all-star cheerleading is on a totally different level. It’s not about school pride anymore. It’s serious business.
All-Star teams are professional outfits formed by cheerleading companies (like Tan’s Cheer Aspirations), with members recruited through open try-outs.
With Malaysia proving to be increasingly competitive on the regional cheerleading scene, Tan believes early development of talent through events like CHEER is important.
“CHEER gives them a good foundation. It prepares them for a higher level of competition both physically and mentally,” said Tan, adding that 13 members of the team in Melbourne had competed in CHEER 2013 earlier this year.
Lim, who’s also a member of Calyx, has been competing in CHEER since she was 13. Four years on, and she’s an all-star flyer.