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At the Canadian Cheer National Championships, thousands of girls and women flip, tumble and dance in the growing sport of competitive cheerleading

Hitting zero

Three days inside the bouncy, sparkly, girl-powered, extremely hard-core world of competitive cheer

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It was the third and final day of the Canadian Cheer National Championships in Niagara Falls, and the Golden Girls were feeling fierce.

The GGs, as they called themselves, had done their warm-ups and gone through their rituals. They’d screamed together in the foyer of the Niagara Falls Convention Centre, shouting out the doubt and negativity, anything that could hold them back. They’d run their routine, working their pyramids and tumbling and baskets and dance over and over – and in their minds so many more times than that – until its relentless rhythm was as natural as breathing. They’d stretched into splits, lifted their legs into standing scales, flipped and tumbled down the practice mats. They’d stood swaying together in a circle, two dozen teenagers and women with their arms wrapped around each other, singing Lady Gaga at the top of their lungs.

The CheerForce WolfPack Golden Girls over the course of the weekend.

“Take it in, but remember this is what you trained for,” their coach, Jess Montoya had told them, her raspy voice straining over the raucous noise of a backstage hallway. She was a former cheerleader who went to university for child and youth psychology, but kept coming back to cheer. “Chill out, take it moment by moment. Enjoy it.”

Outside, the sun was shining, other groups of girls glimmering in constellations on the grass.

The CheerForce WolfPack Golden Girls and the Cheer Sport Great White Sharks are two of the most prominent and closely watched teams in the rapidly developing world of Canadian cheer. Going into Nationals in April, the Great White Sharks were five-time world champions and the subject of Canadian reality show Cheer Squad, a team known for precise and beautiful routines, for stunts that pushed the limits of what seemed possible.

But the Golden Girls had been circling, coming second to the Great Whites at Worlds in Florida last year, nipping behind them in Dallas in February, placing second at the Face-Off event on Friday night.

The idea of a rivalry between the teams was a bit overhyped – the effect of social media, and maybe the American influence, where “cheerlebrities” and cheer fan accounts could be dramatic and mean. But while the Great White Sharks and the Golden Girls respected each other, there was no doubt both teams were there to win.

Going into their second and final routine for Nationals on Sunday, the Golden Girls were in first place. It was the end of the season, the last chance at Nationals for some of them.

They had 2½ minutes.

Whatis even happening?

The Niagara Falls Convention Centre began filling up first thing Friday morning. There were, according to their T-shirts, Proud Cheer Moms and #1 Cheer Dads. There were cheer siblings and cheer grandparents, entire families decked out in cheer hoodies and cheer T-shirts and cheer paraphernalia, team regalia to rival any crowd of die-hard sports fans. By the time the first teams took the stage, the line outside the ProCheer apparel store stretched 20 minutes or more.
Cheer Dads and Cheer Moms with teammates from Legacy Allstarz in Laval, Que., show their support for athletes on the competition's first day.
Demonstrating flexibility in the halls of the convention centre for members of the Under 6 Twinkles from CheerForce in Oakville, Ont.
Stacey Slute finishes her daughter Baylee’s eye makeup while brother Dallas waits ahead of her performance.

“It’s pretty intense,” said Janine Furtado, rolling her 15-year-old daughter’s ponytail into fat ringlets with a curling iron plugged into a hallway wall.

Like many of those at Nationals, Janine and her husband didn’t know anything about cheer until their daughter, Summer, got into it. Before that, they thought cheer was all pep rallies and rah-rah-sis-boom-bah, old-fashioned sideline cheerleading, where girls led chants and waved pompoms alongside a football game.

Now, they knew it was nothing like that. This cheer wasn’t about pumping up the crowd for a men’s sport. Cheer was the sport. These teams cheered only for themselves and for other cheer teams.

Four years in, cheer was how they spent their weekends, their family vacations, a significant amount of their money. Janine’s husband, Jay Jankowsky, soon found himself with a collection of Cheer Dad shirts and a deep appreciation for both the athleticism and high-stakes nature of cheer competition. It would be hard not to get into it, seeing how much dedication and teamwork it took, how hard the girls trained: two practices a week at least, plus private tumbling lessons. So much effort for competitions won or lost in two, 2½-minute routines.

Beach Cheer Athletics RipTide perform a toe-touch jump. The team and crowd often yell “hit” timed to these jumps.

“Literally every single girl has to work together for a routine to hit, so it’s all about teamwork,” Janine said. “If anything goes wrong, they hurt pretty hard, too. They feel like they’re letting their team down.”

Nearby, one of Summer’s teammates was hunched over, looking pale, sick with a fever as another teammate opened a bottle of Tylenol and calculated the dose. “There’s always one,” Janine said sympathetically.

A group of girls danced around, singing Taylor Swift at full volume.

The Canadian Cheer National Championships is the largest tournament in Canadian cheer. This year, 8,000 athletes journeyed from around the country to compete at Nationals, with at least double that number of supporters paying to watch. The youngest competitors were five, the oldest in their 40s. Some of the 428 teams, including both the Golden Girls and Great White Sharks, would be heading to the world cheer competition in Orlando the following week.

“It’s a bit of a subculture. You come here and you’re just like, ‘What is even happening?’ It’s this whole other world,” said Ali Moffatt, a former cheerleader who coaches the Great White Sharks and is co-owner of Cheer Sport Sharks, Canada’s largest cheer gym. “We always say that to new families when they’re joining the gym. The first year, you’re going to be like, ‘What have I started?’ And all of a sudden, you’re just addicted to it.”

In all-star cheer, teams of up to 32 people compete by performing short, highly technical acrobatic routines in unison at the highest energy, with scores based on execution, difficulty, creativity and showmanship.

Many come from gymnastics and dance, drawn by cheer’s unique amalgamation of athletics, entertainment and teamwork.

There are places for all kinds of bodies in cheer – small flyers, lithe tumblers, powerful bases – and with seven different skill levels and no upper age limit, virtually anyone can find a place. Though there are co-ed teams, cheer in Canada is overwhelmingly female, with girls and women making up an estimated 98 per cent of competitors.

There is nothing quite like cheer, which combines the hyper-feminine aesthetic of a pageant with the posturing and swagger of boxing, the performative flair of pro wrestling, the tribal fandom of football and the raucous atmosphere of a rock concert.

“If you go into a cheer practice, kids are sweating, sometimes crying, bleeding. This is intense,” said Jess Montoya, the Golden Girls coach. “It’s a hardcore sport.”

Lest the false eyelashes and giant hair bows obscure its intensity, team names – Wicked, Wrath, Chaos, Mayhem, Reckless, Savage, Vengeance, Defiance, Furious, Cheer Beast, Black Widows – illustrate cheer’s bedazzled mix of “You go, girl” and “Come at me, bro.”

Cheer has exploded in Canada since Ali Moffatt opened her first Cheer Sport gym in Ontario 20 years ago, and continues to grow. Where gyms once had to seek out kids, there are now 700 sharks of various ages training at her nine Cheer Sport locations around the country, and competing gyms opening all the time.

“I think people underestimate the athleticism that’s required to do it until they fully see it. I don’t think anyone would see what a team like Great Whites is doing and say it wasn’t a sport,” she said. “Any time someone says that to me, I’m just like, ‘You’ve got to see what my girls do.’ And the minute they do, they’re like, ‘Oh, okay, this is insane.’ They get it. You just have to watch it.”

Don’t let
the sparklesfool you

Nineteen-year-old Maddy Hickey stood still near the window of an Airbnb, waiting while her mother re-watched an instructional video on YouTube, preparing to tape Maddy’s shoulder before competition.

“All the doctors I’ve seen are like, ‘Rest. Rest.’ I’m like, ‘Sorry, no, I have Nationals and then Worlds, I literally can’t,’ ” Maddy said. Her mother, Tanya, winced. Being a cheer parent is not for the faint of heart.

Maddy Hickey gets her shoulder taped, does her hair and makeup, records a TikTok video and practises with her teammates before her Saturday performance.

Cheer is no small commitment. There are the practices (mandatory) and the costs (significant): $500 for the team uniform, replaced every two years, $150 for cheer shoes that may not last a season, and up to $8,000 a year in gym and competition fees and travel, more at the higher levels.

In nine years of cheer, Maddy knew well how physically punishing it could be. She’d had her nose broken, been kicked in the jaw, torn her rotator cuff twice, gotten a concussion, had her finger crushed, and was now going into Nationals with a separated shoulder. One of her friends had blown out her knee so badly she’d never fully recovered, never mind been able to cheer again.

Maddy Hickey with her mom, Tanya, following her Saturday performance.

Maddy was on PCT Legendary, a co-ed team in Level 7, the most advanced level in cheer. In the routine later that day, a girl would stand on top of Maddy’s shoulders, and another girl would be lifted on top of that. It didn’t seem like the best thing to do with a separated shoulder, but when Maddy’s coach asked if they should bring in an alternate, Maddy cried and told her: “I will literally cut my arm off and go there with one arm.”

“It brings me so much happiness,” she said. “I love, love, love it. It brings me so much joy.”

Pushing through injury and pain is a mark of pride for many athletes, a display of tenacity and grit. But it’s perhaps less expected in cheer, where swinging ponytails and big smiles can belie the seriousness and extremity of the pursuit. In 2006, when American cheerleader Kristi Yamaoka fell 15 feet onto her head, she continued the motions of her routine even while being wheeled away on a stretcher with a concussion and a broken neck.

“You’re always proving yourself to other people. It’s a very underestimated sport,” said Maddy. “People don’t think you’re strong. And then when you go out there and you hit it, you’re like, ‘Watch this.’”

When people ask Maddy what football team she cheers for – as still sometimes happens – she pulls up a video of one of her team’s routines, and tells them, “I cheer for myself.”

With 8,000 athletes each performing their routines twice at Nationals – all those bodies flying and flipping and twisting together at high velocity – there was a running ledger of sprained ankles and jammed wrists, a shoulder dislocation, an ugly finger break that needed surgery.

“The highs are high, and the lows are low,” said Bruce Baldock, sitting next to his 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, amid the hubbub of the convention centre on Saturday.

The previous year, the whole right side of her team’s pyramid had collapsed on the final day of Nationals, an instant loss. She was a flyer, and in practice and competition, he had known the helpless, sickening feeling of seeing his daughter tossed at the wrong angle, knowing no one would be able to catch her.

“It’s hard to keep smiling, but you have to. You have to tough it out,” Alyssa said brightly. She was in her fifth year of cheer, competing with the Cheer Sport Spinner Sharks. “Even if you get kicked in the face by a girl, you have to keep smiling.”

Vomiting – from nerves, from the intense physicality, or from performing through illness – is common enough that there are bins ready off stage, and a procedure to clean the mats when it happens during a routine.

“I’m not just the vomit guy,” stressed Mario Carito, a former football and rugby player who got into cheer at 18, ultimately choosing it over rugby at college. He works about a dozen cheer competitions a year including Nationals, tending to the mats, running water stations, passing out the coveted Nationals competition blankets, setting up wheelchair ramps for the Cheerabilities athletes.

Mario Carito, a former competitor, cleans a mat on the first day of competition.

But it’s the barf that makes him a cheerlebrity, of sorts. As Mario headed onto the stage with his wet vac and disinfectant kit for the 10th time, the audience was dancing to Mambo No. 5 and chanting his name.

“It’s kind of like at the hockey game when everyone cheers for the Zamboni guy,” he said. “It’s a rough task, but we’re trying to make it fun for everyone.”

The world of cheer is, if it needs to be said, extremely – even relentlessly – cheerful.

As Nationals wound to its final performances on Sunday afternoon, the hallways of the convention centre were littered with a chaos of streamers and dotted with glitter.

It had been three full days of wild energy and thumping music. There had been constant and uncountable hugs and squeals and woo-hoos and pep talks and selfies, spontaneous singalongs and exuberant hallway dance parties.

There had been supporters chanting and cheering and pounding the floor, athletes singing and screaming, unrestrained female voices at full volume, with no one even thinking to tell them to be quieter.

There had been fogs of hairspray, gallons of energy drink, mounds of candy.

And there had been tears – so many different kinds of tears. Tears of physical pain, of frustration, of disappointment, of joy and pride and accomplishment, slipping down the faces of athletes and coaches and supporters alike.

“It’s beautiful. Everything is so crazy,” said Ziggy G, a former nightclub bouncer working security at the cheer competition for the first time. In one tradition, cheerleaders decorate clothespins and slip them onto other athletes’ backpacks for luck. As the weekend went on, Ziggy G’s lanyard and ID tag were increasingly full of colourful pins with messages like, “Get it!” and “You rock!”

“It’s crazy how popular it is, and how much people get into it,” he said. “The best thing is to see all those cheerleaders being so happy.”


The Golden Girls and the Great White Sharks warmed up across from each other in the practice gym on Sunday afternoon. Their custom songs blared from two separate sound systems, electronic dance music pulsing with deep beat drops and laser pews telling their team stories for the season, clashing in a chaos of noise somewhere in the space between.

“There must be blood in the water, I can smell it from a mile away. It’s a feast of fear. There’s no one to save you,” the Great Whites’ music roared.

“Work hard! Dream big! You can be anything you want,” pulsed the Golden Girls’ Barbie-themed song. “Independent, so resilient, forget about Ken.”

After being dismissed and discounted for much of its history, cheer is increasingly being acknowledged as something more than a perky appurtenance for male athletics. The International Olympic Committee officially recognized cheer in 2021, paving the way for it to become an Olympic event as early as 2028, and perhaps settling once and for all – for anyone who still doubts it – the question of whether cheer is a sport.

The Great White Sharks ran onto the stage.

In All-Girl Level 6, routines are made up of a series of acrobatic stunts, pyramids and tumbling, finishing with a choreographed dance.

With so many athletes performing at once, it takes at least eight judges to watch and score the elements of the routine.

Hitting zero – performing a routine with no deductions – is a source of great pride. While it doesn’t guarantee a win, it means the team never faltered.

The Great Whites looked flawless.

“Did they hit?” I asked Ali, as the team ran off stage 2½ minutes later, a blur of white and sparkles.

“There was one slight thing. I don’t know how the judges will call it,” she said, worriedly walking to the video screen backstage to view the replay. When it was done, she turned around, relieved. “I think they hit.”

The Golden Girls gathered in the dark backstage, finding a moment of calm amid the thunderous noise. Their coach, Jess Montoya, had taught them to focus inward and fuel their minds with positive thoughts in those moments, replaying every practice, every competition, every time their routine had gone right.

Then the Golden Girls took the stage, a swarm of black and pink and rhinestones catching the light. Jess clapped from the floor, making sure they sensed her confidence in them. It was a challenging routine, and they’d never hit it twice in a row at competition this year. But she knew they could.

Hi, I’m Barbie. Their music started and 24 girls burst into motion, a synchronicity of bodies flying into the air, balanced atop pyramids, dropping into baskets of their teammates’ arms. They launched themselves into strings of backflips, jumped up into splits.

They vamped and stamped, hands clenched into fists, full of grace and power.

Then, as a flyer spun a pirouette atop her teammates’ uplifted hands, a momentary loss of balance. It was the final moment of the final stunt, the last seconds of the routine. The flyer swayed, missing her teammate’s outstretched arms, then toppled backwards toward the ground.

There were gasps and groans in the crowd.

On stage, faces flickered, registering panic then dismay, before springing back into broad smiles as they recovered and finished the routine. The Golden Girls left the stage, gathering grimly around the screen to watch their video. They had been so close.

“Do not give up,” Jess told them. “We just have to be good to one another. You can’t blame each other, and we have to move on.”

The team broke into smaller groups and drifted away into hugs, getting water, trading congratulations and condolences with the Great Whites, finding parents and supporters – many decked out in Golden Girls shirts and Barbie pink accessories – also feeling the crush of disappointment.

“We’re there for each other,” said 18-year-old Steph Miles, another of the team’s flyers, standing outside in the sun later, after the Golden Girls collected their second-place banner.

“We all know that it’s not one person’s fault,” she said. “We all take the hit as a team.”

By the next morning, the Golden Girls were back in their group chat. The messages popped up on coach Jess Montoya’s phone one after the other.

“I had a huge cry on the ride home because I freaking love this team so much,” one said.

And another: “These are the moments we’re gonna remember. And are a reminder that we are nothing without each other.”

The Golden Girls would be back at the gym that evening. There would be taped ankles and bruised thighs, old injuries and fresh pain. They’d wear their matching blue CheerForce shirts and their pink CheerForce shorts, and they’d work their routine, finding their smiles and that place they called their “golden bubble,” where all that mattered was their team and what they could do together. Looking ahead to Worlds, to next season, to another chance to hit zero.

Streamers fly at the awards ceremony for the pre-competitive teams.
  • Editing by Lisan Jutras
  • Photo editing by Solana Cain
  • Development by Jeremy Agius


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