Could cheerleading one day become an Olympic sport?
Kentucky cheerleading coach Jomo Thompson certainly thinks so, and the Cats will be doing their part to help promote cheerleading and the USA at the Winter Olympics this February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
USA Cheer recently selected UK to be the United States’ representative at the Games where it will perform some exhibitions, participate in medal ceremonies and take part in a friendly competition with six other nations.
“I think it’s awesome,” Thompson said last week as his team prepared for the UCA College Nationals that will take place Jan. 12-14. “It’s pretty cool representing the University of Kentucky, right now, but to take it a step above that and no longer represent just our state or our flagship school, but to represent all of the U.S.? It’s a tremendous honor. It’s something that I’m very excited about and something that the kids are very excited about.”
Kentucky will send its 16-member Blue squad (nine men, seven women), plus one male and one female alternate to the Olympic Games from Feb. 18-28. They will arrive a week after the Olympics begin and leave just after they end. The costs are being picked up by organizers in South Korea, Thompson said.
Whitney Agee, a fifth-year senior, was one of nine Kentucky cheerleaders selected for last season’s USA Cheer national team. She never thought she would get the chance to trade in her blue and white for the Red, White and Blue with all of her UK Blue squad teammates.
“It’s so exciting,” Agee said. “We’re just going to go and try to be good ambassadors and try to represent the United States with pride, try to take it day by day, and make as many new friends as possible.”
Part of the reason USA Cheer selected UK rather than its annual national team for this honor was simplicity. USA Cheer tryouts are held in January, a day after the UCA College Nationals when cheerleaders from all the top teams in the nation are gathered in Orlando, Fla. Tryout winners then return to their respective schools across the nation. With 29 members from any number of different schools, that is a lot to coordinate in less than a month before the Olympics.
And putting together a routine from such a group takes time. Agee and her UK stunt partner, Spencer Clan, left the USA Cheer team meeting last January with a set of skills they were supposed to work on by themselves. USA Cheer required each set of partners to send video updates of their homework on those skills until they were perfected. The USA team didn’t work together on its routine until nine days before the ICU World Championships at the end of April.
“It was crazy,” Agee said of the whole USA Cheer process. “I thought that (UK) was crazy, but it was insane.”
Agee and her USA teammates relished the experience, however, and they won a gold medal at the international event.
Agee also found something she didn’t expect: she and other members of the USA team had apparently achieved a bit of international celebrity.
“It’s different seeing people from other countries now who know who you are and know where you come from and know your name and want to take pictures with you, and just think that you’re the most amazing thing in the world,” she said. Agee and Clan had won the NCA Partner Stunt national title earlier that month. “It’s so neat to be able to learn about different cultures even in just a short period of time.”
Becoming a sport
The International Cheer Union has 110 member nations and last year was awarded provisional recognition by the International Olympic Committee. Cheerleaders have been a part of the games since 1984, but this will be the first time an Olympic invitation has been extended specifically to USA Cheer. Norway, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and the Netherlands will also have cheer teams at the Games.
For the ICU, this invitation offers a chance to showcase cheerleading as it makes its case over the next two years to be part of the 2020 Summer Olympics, said Karl Olsen, ICU secretary general.
“Although there are many factors involved in being part of the Olympic Games program, we trust presenting high-level cheerleading skills throughout the Olympic venues to the international sport leadership community will provide value in this regard,” he said.
If you were going to pick one team to display the athleticism of cheerleading, the 22-time national champion Cats would be a pretty good choice. There are different kinds of competitions ranging from full teams, to co-ed partner stunts like Agee and Clan, to all-girls squads and on and on.
“The competitive side of what we do I think is definitely sports worthy,” Thompson said. “Cheerleading encompasses so much more than just competition, but this competitive side of what we do can definitely be a sport.”
Competitive cheerleading is not unlike gymnastics or ice skating in that there is a certain level of artistry and athleticism that is involved.
Cheerleading routines like the one Kentucky is working on for this year’s college nationals are scored on a point system that factors in artistry and execution. Fewer mistakes means fewer deductions and better scores while innovation in the routine is also rewarded.
Right now, Thompson is doing some of the logistics needed to get UK to the Olympics, but he has his Blue squad focused on perfecting their routine for nationals. They are going for their third straight title and 23rd overall.
“I love cheerleading. I like working with kids,” said Thompson, who has been head coach since 2003. “I like making a difference, and I like being the best, you know. So that’s something that really pushes us each and every year is trying to get back to that top, the pinnacle. It’s a great program that’s here. It was a program that was great before I got here, so I consider myself a steward to keep that tradition going.”
As for supporting the UK men’s and women’s basketball teams? Don’t worry, UK cheerleading actually has nearly 50 members who help perform the squad’s other vital function: cheering on the Cats. While the main competition squad has a base of 16 members and two alternates, injuries can sometimes shuffle the lineup like any other team. Thompson makes sure UK has enough cheerleaders on hand to handle all of their responsibilities.
“We want it to seem like an army,” he said, “a cheering army.”