Lizzie Williams describes watching Netflix’s new cheerleading documentary, Cheer, as surreal. It was the first time the 26-year-old British cheerleader had seen an accurate portrayal of her sport – its mechanically precise choreography, the gravity-defying tumbling, and the sheer grit required to push past exhaustion.
The six-part documentary, which aired this month, follows cheerleading champions from Navarro College in Texas as they defended their national title. It has been warmly welcomed by elite cheerleaders and coaches in the UK for putting their sport centre stage – and pushing past the idea that it’s all big grins and miniskirts.
“Most people see the sideline cheer; they see the pom-poms and dance side of it. They don’t understand all-star cheerleading exists and that it is a hard and challenging sport to compete in,” Williams, said while practising with the Unity Allstars Black team in south London. The group, which competes on the same level as Navarro, was placed seventh in the world last year.
The series premiered as interest in cheerleading has exploded in the UK. Tori Rubin, the co-manager of the England cheerleading team and co-owner of Unity Allstar, said she started the company in 2006 with one team, but the gym now boasts 23 teams. The trend is echoed across the country, with an estimated 60,000 athletes competing at regional and national level.
“It’s a great sport because it’s teamwork, it’s all about athletes working together in unison to create something spectacular. I used to be a gymnast and the thing I found really difficult was the individual nature of the sport,” Rubin said. She praised the documentary for showing the athleticism required to be a competitive cheerleader. “It’s very similar to our practices. It’s indicative of what cheerleading is about; it’s tough, it’s hard, but once you’re in it you’re obsessed.”
While Unity AllStar Black is the only UK team that can compete at the same level as Navarro, the sport has developed rapidly across the country. “When I first got involved with the sport 15 years ago it was, in essence, mums with kids learning things from YouTube and books and competing with other mums with kids and pushing mats together,” said Joanna Gamper Cuthbert, the chair of SportCheer England, the national governing body for cheerleading in England. She added that teams have been able to dramatically increase their skill level because of the better training and education.
Amanda Fairhall, the events director of Future Cheers, one of the country’s largest cheer competition organisers, said while US teams dominate the sport, “the gulf between us and the Americans has started to close”. She added: “The teams we send to compete in world championships are competing with the best of the best and holding their own.”
Navarro’s long road to becoming national champions is littered with broken bones, blood and tears. Williams does not shy away from the risk that comes with being a competitive cheerleader, but said: “If you trust your bases that takes away a lot of the fear factor. If they trust you to do your job and you trust them to do their job, then you’ve got the confidence to go for the skill that is scary to begin with.”
The documentary has also received critical acclaim for its representation of male cheerleaders. Tyla Cousins, 21, who has been a cheerleader for nine years, said: “It’s still at that stage where I have to explain to my dad’s friends that it doesn’t include pom-poms. So for the people that don’t actually understand the sport, the documentary allows people to get to have a little view of what you do.”
Cousins, who has previously broken his ankle in four places and cracked a rib, added it was not difficult to get people to understand the stamina required to take part.
As awareness of the sport grows, children are being drawn in at a younger age. Reanne Snagg drives eight-year old Mya Benjamin-Clarke more than an hour to Unity Allstar’s gym to train. Mya goes four times a week for gymnastics, acrobatics, tumbling, and flying lessons. While Snagg loves seeing Mya become a more confident child, she admits it can be nerve-racking to watch as a parent. “When they’re flying, they do go very high and as a mother you can’t help but think, ‘Oh my God please catch my child!’”
To sustain the interest of the growing number of girls and boys who want to take part in the sport, the cheer community needs money. “Sport England recognition would mean our grassroots community programmes would have access to funding that’s ringfenced for sport,” Gamper Cuthbert explained. The funding would also support the pioneering work already done in the inclusion of disabled athletes in cheerleading.
SportCheer England, which operates on “glitter and a prayer”, is determined to not only get recognition from Sport England, but to see the sport on the Olympic stage.
It’s a dream that many hope to see realised at Unity AllStars. But, for now, the athletes remain focused on completing their routine without a single mistake. It’s brutal and exhausting work that takes its toll. As the Black team gets ready to go again, they cheer each other on as Rubin shouts: “If you think you are tired, remember you’re not tired.”