After the pom poms

More than “support” – McGill cheerleaders are top athletes in their own right

Some members of the high-flying McGill Cheerleading Team practice in preparation for an upcoming competition in the U.S. / Photo: Owen Egan
Some members of the high-flying McGill Cheerleading Team practice in preparation for an upcoming competition in the U.S. / Photo: Owen Egan

By Jim Hynes

Although they’ll occasionally ask you to give them an “M”, especially when they are leading the cheers at football and basketball games, McGill’s cheerleading team really wants you to give them an “R” – as in “Respect.”

The 30 members of the McGill Redmen Cheerleading Team are more than just “support,” says Head Coach Tracy Calabrice, they’re excellent athletes in their own competitive sport.

“There is the cheerleading you see during NFL and NBA games, and that’s what I think gives cheerleading a bad name, you know, half naked girls dancing around,” said Calabrice, a fourth year Education student. “Then there’s college cheerleading, the kind you might see during an NCAA football game on television. That’s a more accurate representation of what we do.”

Indeed. Nary a “Rah” nor a “sis-boom-bah” is heard when the McGill Cheerleading Team gets together, and the pom poms only come out on the most special of occasions. Modern cheerleading draws heavily from gymnastics, dance and stunting, some of it of the extreme variety. The team combines these elements into the high-energy 2 ½-minute routines it performs at national and international competitions. The squad practices three times every week for a total of nine or 10 hours.

“We do a lot of conditioning as well,” Calabrice said. “That’s something we didn’t work hard enough at before. But we now spend a lot of time on it so we can be as strong as we can be.  You have to be in great shape to do our routine.”

The team members themselves come from a variety of backgrounds. Some, like Calabrice herself, have extensive cheerleading experience. The St. Leonard native started cheering when she moved to Syracuse, New York at age 13, and then kept up with it when she returned to Montreal to attend Vanier and later McGill.

“Others have no cheerleading experience but are fantastic gymnasts,” Calabrice said. “Some have neither, but they’re in very good shape and they have other sport or dance experience. We generally like to have people with some kind of athletic background.”

The team is initially put together after tryouts in the fall, but another tryout session is held in the winter to help re-stock the squad.

“It’s a big commitment, a tough schedule,” Calabrice said. “Some people drop out, so we just took on another five.”

The team, which placed second in its division in the Canadian Cheerleading National Championships in Brampton, Ontario last November, is currently preparing for an important U.S. competition to be held in Hershey, Pa. in March.  The team receives no funding, so its members must raise the money on their own to cover costs that add up to approximately $450 per member per semester. Most manage to raise about half that amount by participating in various sales, and by hosting parties and other activities, but must reach into their own pockets for at least $210 each semester.

As the cheerleaders work at their routine and at raising funds, they also have to work to change people’s perceptions of cheerleaders and cheerleading.

“We often get pinned as dumb girls, but the reality is that we have team members in Law, Medicine, Education, Psychology, you name it.  If anything, I think most of the girls on my team are very high achievers and very intelligent people,” Calabrice said. “People often think that it’s a rah-rah-activity. We’re not even considered a sport, even though we’ve had team members suffer concussions and broken bones. So that’s something we’re constantly battling. We want to get the recognition we deserve because we work just as hard as the other athletes.”

For more information on the McGill Redmen Cheerleading Team, visit