In one episode of the reality-TV show Cheer Squad, four members of a competitive-cheerleading team sit on blue mats at their gym discussing a common problem they face. Their all-girl squad, known as Cheer Sport Great White Sharks, is a two-time world champion—but they have a hard time getting respect for it.
“You know what my biggest pet peeve is with cheer?” 16-year-old Nubs (the team goes by their nicknames) asks the group. “Everyone just doesn’t think it’s a sport.”
“People think we use pom-poms and dance around,” her teammate, 17-year-old B.H., chimes in. “That’s so different from what we actually do.”
“I’ve been asked, ‘Who are you cheering for?’ I’m like, ‘no, no, no,’” Nubs laments.
During the series, the team is training for the biggest and most prestigious event of the season, the Cheerleading Worlds competition (this year’s three-day contest in Orlando, Florida, ended Monday). As the girls hint, but as few viewers might know, squads like the Great White Sharks don’t perform at school football or basketball games. That more visible kind of cheer is known as collegiate, or sideline, cheer, where the primary purpose is to support other sports teams. Instead, the Great White Sharks are All Star cheerleaders. Though similar in some ways to their sideline counterpart, there are a couple of crucial differences. Highly trained All Star teams—mainly made up of, but not limited to, 11- to 18-year-olds—belong to private gyms and aren’t attached to any school. Their top goal isn’t to support another team, but to win competitions, which is one of the main criteria that determines whether an athletic activity is a sport.