“I would love to see people recognise it for what it actually is, it’s a physical sport. I’ve played other sports, I’ve played football, I’ve done a bit of rugby, it’s the hardest sport I’ve ever done.”
Cheerleading is a relatively young and small sport in Ireland but its athletes are on a mission to change the public’s perception of it.
While images of pom-poms and chants might come to mind when you think of cheerleading, in reality, it is a physically tough and demanding sport that teaches discipline, respect and trust.
Hana Kelly has been involved in cheer for ten years having joined a club when she was seven. She was immediately drawn to the sport for its unique blend.
“I was about seven when I started. I wanted to do gymnastics originally but the times didn’t work out so I saw they offered cheerleading as well. I had no idea what it was but I ended up starting that, kind of by accident. And I’ve been doing it ever since.
“There’s tumbling elements of gymnastics in cheerleading and then of course dance elements as well but it is very unique, the fact that we bring them all together is not something I’ve seen in any other sport. For me, the most enjoyable part is stunting. There is some stunting in gymnastics but really it is unique to cheer.”
There are so many different roles within cheer that it really is a sport for everyone.
“Within a stunt group, there is generally four people. There’s two bases, a backspot and a flyer. The flyer is obviously the one who goes up in the air, is lifted, that’s my position. The backspot is usually the taller, stronger one who is at the back and it is usually their job to hold ankles or thighs and really their job is to catch the flyer if they fall. My backspot has saved my life many times!
“The job of the bases is to be on grips, holding onto the feet. They control the stunts and they decide what happens and where it goes. In some situations who could have a frontspot as well if they need a bit of extra strength underneath. There’s also tumblers who wouldn’t be in the stunt but they do walkovers, back flips etc, around it.”
Though she loves her role, as a flyer, Kelly has to place her safety in the hands of others. To her though, it is second nature and she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“When you’ve been with a group for a long time, it becomes second nature. I’ve had my group for quite a while now, I know they’re going to catch me and once you’ve been working with the same people for a long time, you know when to fly for a stunt, when to come down, and once you have that understanding and that connection with each other, it doesn’t feel scary at all.
“If you don’t trust your group, it’s never going to work.”
Kelly competed at Worlds in April 2019 in Florida having made it onto Team Ireland following some intense preparation. Sportspeople often speak of international competitions as the best moments of their careers but Kelly does not shy away from the tough realities of competing at the highest level.
While representing her country was an honour, it brought with it a huge amount of pressure.
"When the music stopped and I heard all our teammates supporting us in the crowd, I remember feeling so overwhelmed with pride it brought me to tears. It was truly incredible."@IrishCheerSport @iresport#ShowcaseYourSporthttps://t.co/3UzdmTGzu9
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) July 8, 2020
“We trained for nine months and it was an amazing experience.
“Obviously, it was amazing but I’m not going to say that it wasn’t stressful. It was a lot of pressure knowing that our coaches had worked so hard, our teammates had worked so hard. I just didn’t want to let anyone down and I was very aware of that.
“But I’ll never forget the feeling of going out and seeing Ireland across our chests. It was an amazing experience. So few people get to represent their country so I feel blessed to have gotten that opportunity.”
During that time, Kelly was also studying for her Junior Cert and one year one, she has no thoughts of lightening her work load as she has now turned her hand to coaching the young members and flyers of her club.
“It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for quite a while but because of school time and training and everything, I haven’t been able to get the hours in. Now with lockdown, we’ve had more time on our hands and that worked in my favour because I could start taking zoom classes with some of the flyers and some of the younger athletes.
— Pundit Arena (@PunditArena) July 7, 2020
“I’ve had so many great experiences through cheer and to be able to pass that onto the younger ones and seeing them improve every week, it’s a really gratifying experience.”
“It’s difficult to try and find the time but I was in TY this year so I could focus on cheer which was great when we were training for Worlds this year. I went to Worlds for the first time when I was in third year so obviously I was doing my Junior Cert and focusing on my school work as well. It is hard to juggle it all but I think if you care about it and it’s something you really love, you’ll make the time.
“It was a struggle to get everything done but it was something that I wanted so badly, it wasn’t even a question of whether I’d be able to, it was just a case of I was going to make it happen somehow.”
Like all cheerleading athletes, Kelly is hopeful that her sport will soon gain Olympic recognition. Not just for her own career, but so that others can finally see what the sport is all about.
“If it did, that would be amazing, I think it would completely change the nature of the sport. If I mention cheerleading, people think of pom-poms and standing on the sidelines which is just so far away from what we actually do.
“I would love to see people recognise it for what it actually is, it’s a physical sport. I’ve played other sports, I’ve played football, I’ve done a bit of rugby, it’s the hardest sport I’ve ever done.
“It’s such a good thing to get into because obviously you can get to a high level, and make amazing friends while you’re at it. It teaches you discipline and trust in other people. So I would love to see it get recognised for the amazing sport that it is.”