Last December, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) recognized cheerleading as a sport.
This milestone is encouraging news for cheerleaders all over the world, including the Philippines, where cheerleading is clearly taking the country by storm.
Thanks to movies like 2000’s “Bring It On” and the jaw-dropping, part-athletic, part-dance routines of teams representing their schools in events like the University Athletic Association of the Philippines (UAAP), Women’s National Collegiate Athletic Association (WNCAA) and National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Cheerdance Competitions, cheerleading has inspired students to either take up the physically demanding activity that includes splits, flips and human pyramids, or go all-out supporting the squads of their respective schools.
Cheerleading has evolved beyond the synchronized claps and footstomps of yesteryears. “Like other sports, cheer competitions have much pressure and intensity. Cheerleaders work for a whole year to showcase a five-minute routine,” says Val Padagdagan, former member of the San Beda Alabang (SBCA) Cheerleading Squad. “Still, nothing can compare to the feeling cheerleaders get when we’re on the mats dancing our hearts out for the school we represent—or the country we carry abroad.”
SBCA’s High School Squad competed at the Cheerleading Asia International Open Championships in Japan back in 2013, and had a podium finished.
“Cheering is much more than stunting, tumbling and dancing,” says Bianca Acuña, alumna of the School of the Holy Spirit (SHS) Pep Squad junior team, and now a member of the high school team. “I love cheering because it teaches me to become responsible and disciplined.”
One of the strongest all-women teams in the cheerleading circuit, the SHS Pep Squad bagged titles in the junior and high school divisions, under the leadership of CoachRandell San Gregorio, who also coaches the FEU Cheering Squad and the Sayawatha Dance Troupe.
For men, too
But who says cheerleading is just for women? Javier Lobregat, former captain of the College of St. Benilde Pep Squad, is one of the male athletes who joined the sport when he was in high school.
“Men who want to join shouldn’t worry about being criticized or stereotyped,” he says. “As a cheerleader, I enjoy performing the routines and the more difficult stunts with my teammates.”
Behind the pompoms, pleated skirts and cute bows, cheerleading is actually one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Six days before competing in a cheer competition last year, De La Salle University Animo Squad member Nicole Mercado required surgery after a knee injury.
“It was supposed to be my first competition since I was a reserve back in my rookie year, so I worked really hard to earn a spot in the lineup,” she recalls. “We placed second last year and it made me hungrier for a comeback.”
Eager to compete again, she took her recovery seriously—only to get injured again during a halftime performance at the UAAP Cheerdance Competition in 2016.
“Recovery requires patience, high pain tolerance and dedication to survive at least three hours of therapy every day,” she explains. “I’m taking this as another challenge. Now I’m training ‘conservatively’ on one knee and one last chance left to compete. I’ve waited for my first and last NCC and this time, I’m sure to be back.”
Like other student athletes, cheerleaders must learn how to manage their time well. As competition nears, training can happen daily and extend to weekends, eating up precious hours intended for schoolwork, and for family and friends.
“I keep a planner and maximize my time by always working on something during breaks,” says Samantha Corrales, member of the multi-award-winning University of Philippines (UP) Pep Squad. “That way, the workload doesn’t pile up, allowing me to have enough time to prepare for training.”
Fans will remember that the UP Pep Squad skipped last year’s UAAP Cheerdance Competition, and instead performed a special routine at the College of Human Kinetics gym in the Diliman campus.
The squad also focused on the Asian Cheerleading and Dancesport Championship last November in Jakarta, Indonesia, where it won gold, silver and bronze medals in various categories.
Olympics of cheerleading
Ultimately, representing the country in an international competition is a goal of every cheerleader. “It has always been my dream to compete at the Olympics of my sport, which is the International Cheering Union World Cheerleading Championships,” says St. Paul College Pasig Pep Varsity 9 Team Captain Kaila Magat.
Cheerleaders in the secondary and tertiary levels of different schools audition in open tryouts, where first, second and final cuts form the official lineup. The country’s final representatives are handpicked by accredited cheerleading coaches.
“For three years, I auditioned for the Team Pilipinas All-Girl Elite Cheer and was only accepted in my third try,” says Magat. “Every rejection made me stronger and want to try again because I knew it would be worth it and a big achievement.”
In the past three years, Team Pilipinas has made the country proud with podium finishes in the All-Girl Elite Category; in 2015, the team in the Coed Elite Category finished first runner-up. This year, Team Pilipinas will be competing in the same two categories, as well as in the Cheer Pom and Cheer Hip-Hip categories.
Cheerleaders, of course, aren’t the only ones gung-ho about the sport. Cheerleader fans can be just as passionate. Mark Marvin Lagos, a former professor and now graduate student, recalls how he has been supporting his favorite cheerleading team, the UP Pep Squad, since he was a freshman at Diliman.
“I have watched every CDC live from 2003 to 2015,” he says. “I once lined up as early as 3 a.m. at Smart Araneta Coliseum and yet I wasn’t able to get tickets. That was in 2009. Luckily, someone gave me tickets.”
Lagos explians that cheerleading “brings out school spirit and unites the community, especially in UP, where you have diverse and conflicting opinions on social and political issues… But when it comes to cheerleading, the entire community is there to support the team.”