From UCLan to the World – Cheerleading is here to stay

For many sports fans, the concept of cheerleading may be seen as somewhat of an accessory to the main event. To others, maybe even a distraction of sorts, intended to glamourise and add some colour to ‘traditional’ sports.

”If you say cheerleading, people still automatically assume American high-school, pom poms, that’s about it,” said Team England cheerleader, Molly Crook.

In 2021, however, the International Olympic Committee officially recognised Cheerleading as a member sport, making it eligible for future Olympic Games under its governing body, the International Cheer Union (ICU).

Combining dance, jumps, stunts and tumbling, competitive cheerleading sees teams go head-to-head in fast-paced, dynamic routines, across a variety of different divisions including Hip-Hop, Jazz and Pom.

For Crook, whose day job is in the A&E department at a hospital in Blackburn, there is way more to the sport than the stereotype implies.

“People don’t really understand how physical it is until you show them a video of competitive cheer and then they go ‘Oh wow, OK’, especially the higher level stuff,” said Crook, a coach at Preston dance and cheer club Mystique and who only took up cheerleading while studying for her Masters degree.

Molly Crook (2nd group from left, grounded left) with Team England Adaptive Abilities Median team in London

The Lancashire-based medic is a member of Team England’s Adaptive Abilities Median (TEAAM), which incorporates a diverse array of participants who experience physical and/or learning difficulties, combining disabled and non-disabled athletes.

According to ICU regulation, Adaptive Abilities (AA) teams must be comprised with at least 25% of participants having some form of disability.

Crook said: “The first time I properly did cheer was when I did my Masters at UCLan. I’d known that Team England had Adaptive Abilities teams for a little while. My dance coach at UCLan was on the Adaptive Abilities Pom team a few years back.

“I have ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). I’ve managed my whole life with no one really aware of it. I liked the idea that the team was a mixture of differently-abled athletes. They’re a lot more inclusive to people who learn in different ways, which is why I thought it would be quite cool to try out for that.

“I followed the team on Instagram, saw they had try-outs up North in Leeds. I thought I’d regret it if I didn’t try. I thought I’d go along having nothing to lose, and then made the team.”

Team England Adaptive Abilities Median routine in the semi-finals of the 2023 ICU World Championships (YouTube – International Cheer Union)

TEAAM will be heading out to Florida later this year to represent the nation in this year’s ICU Cheerleading World Championships. Team England will be hoping to go one better than last year’s World’s performance, where they finished runners-up to Canada.

Crook, who will be making her international debut at the tournament, hopes more can be done to bring new eyes to the sport: “For the World’s last year we had a team sleepover and livestreamed it all, and it was impressive to watch. But people who aren’t aware of what it is aren’t going to look for it.

“In the US it’s bigger and more mainstream because they have massive competitions. It would be so good to get it out there and for people to know what competitive cheer is compared to what everyone thinks cheer is.”

Highlight montage from last year’s ICU World Championships (YouTube – International Cheer Union)

Ian Crook, Molly’s father and lecturer in Film Production at UCLan, echoed the same sentiment. “It’s like a lot of niche sports, and I think part of the problem is people don’t realise cheerleading is a sport,” he explained. “But if you’ve ever watched it, it’s one of the most insanely athletic things I’ve ever seen.

“In terms of numbers of people playing it, it’s quite small. Certainly outside of America it’s quite a new sport to the rest of the world, so it probably hasn’t had the recognition it perhaps should deserve.

“It’s just great to see her up there doing all these things. t means an awful lot. Your heart’s in your mouth half the time when they’re building their huge pyramids and doing all their jumps and turns.”

Crook has set up a GoFundMe page in the hope of raising funds for her trip to the 2024 ICU World Championships, which will take place from April 24-26 in Orlando.

“It’s my first time ever going to the US which is a big deal in itself. I’ve never been to such a big competition ever, and especially wearing England on my uniform,” Crook said,

“I don’t think I could express how much this means to me, to have the opportunity to do it let alone actually do it. I don’t have the words for it.”