'I got kicked in the face.' The reality of being a competitive cheerleader.

I felt the impact before I even saw it coming. 

One minute, I was focused and ready in our university gym, lifting our flyer above my head into a high extension. 

The next, her heel was connecting with my cheek, a sharp, jarring contact that sent stars across my vision. 

As my eye began to throb and swell shut, the coach's urgent yell, "Keep going, keep going!" reverberated around the room. There was no pause, no moment for tears; the routine had to go on, and so did I.

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Video via Netflix.

This moment of pain perfectly encapsulates the real, often unseen world of competitive cheerleading — a world vastly different from the stereotypes of smiling, pom-pom-waving cheerleaders often perpetuated in pop culture.

It's a discipline that demands athleticism, precise timing and, above all, resilience.

The spark that ignited my desire to take on cheerleading a decade ago wasn't just the allure of athleticism or the camaraderie — it was also a bit of Hollywood magic.

Watching Kirsten Dunst lead her team through high-flying stunts and intense competitions in the iconic 2001 flick Bring It On struck a chord with me.


Gabrielle Union in Bring It On. Image: Universal.

The film, while a colourful and often light-hearted portrayal, hinted at the dedication, energy and spirit I found so compelling.

So when I discovered my university team was holding tryouts, I was more than ready to dive into the world of cheerleading and be part of something that demanded both physical prowess and unwavering team spirit.


More than just pom-poms. 

Competitive cheer isn't just about looking pretty or being perky on the sidelines. It's a rigorous sport where the athletes lift more than just spirits — we lift people.

My role as a base involved being the foundation upon which our flyers soared and twisted, performing breathtaking stunts that require trust and collective strength. 

And yes — it sometimes involved getting kicked in the face, pushing through the pain, and popping right back into formation.

The gritty reality of competitive cheerleading has recently been spotlighted in popular culture, most recently in Emmy Award-winning director Greg Whiteley's Netflix documentary series about the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, America's Sweethearts.

Image: Netflix.


The seven-episode saga delves deep into the emotional highs and lows of selecting a competitive cheer squad, following the 2023-24 squad from tryouts to final performances. It's a reminder that not everyone makes the cut, despite talent and hard work — a harsh truth that resonates with anyone who's been on the competitive cheer circuit.

Similarly, the 2020 Netflix documentary Cheer explored the lives and challenges faced by cheerleaders at Navarro College, offering viewers an inside look at the intense dedication and brutal preparation involved in cheerleading.

Like America's Sweethearts, Cheer showed that this sport is about more than just big hair and bright smiles; it's about perseverance, pain and pushing past personal limits.

Image: Netflix.


The price of passion.

With continuous training all year round, it's not surprising that cheerleaders suffer recurring injuries. 

Performing gymnastics and acrobatics means using your extremities and joints to their full extent. Although highly flexible and robust, these are not immune to wear and tear due to overuse. 

Most cheerleaders sustain muscle sprains, strains, fractures, and dislocations during practice and competition. In severe cases, athletes may also experience head injuries, concussions and skull fractures.

Image: Facebook

Despite this, sports like football are widely recognised for their brutality, while cheerleading is often overlooked. Yet the physical demands and risks are just as high, if not higher.


A study conducted by The National Centre for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR) in the US found that football and cheerleading have the highest incidence of fatal injuries and accidents. In fact, there was an average of at least one death per year among cheerleaders from 1991 to 2015. 

The show must go on.

Ahead of competitions that would take place throughout the season, we would spend countless hours training relentlessly, both during the week and on weekends. 

The pinnacle of our competitive season was the AASCF Nationals, a gateway for elite teams to earn their bids to the Cheer & Dance World Championships. It's a high-stakes arena where every flip and fall can mean the difference between stepping onto the world stage or watching from the sidelines.

As we hit the stage for nationals after a slew of successful competitions, the pressure was palpable. Our team was in peak form, routines honed to perfection — until disaster struck mid-performance.

One of our key bases tore her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during our final routine, letting out an agonising scream that echoed throughout the hall. The abrupt halt and her obvious pain shook us all, but the rules were clear: the show must go on.


With barely a moment to catch my breath or steady my nerves, I was called to fill her spot. 

The team quickly regrouped, and we performed the routine again. I was out of breath, my muscles screamed with fatigue, and my mind raced to keep up with the sudden changes. 

Despite the chaos, we pulled through with sheer determination and grit, securing a bronze medal. It was a testament to our resilience, skill and the unbreakable bond we shared as teammates. 

Through every bruise and every performance, competitive cheerleading tests the limits of what teams can achieve together.

It's about the collective effort — the practice sessions that stretch into the night, the shared victories at competitions, and the mutual support when routines don't go as planned. Every cheerleader on the mat relies on their teammates, not just for the success of a stunt but for their safety and wellbeing.

So, as you glimpse the cheer squads at games, competitions, or even the latest Netflix documentary, remember the reality of this world. 

It's one where athleticism intersects with art, where every smile is earned through hours of hard work, and where every cheerleader, whether flying above or standing strong below, knows the true weight of teamwork.

Feature Image: Universal.

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