WORDS Kim Newth PHOTOS Sarah Rowlands

Learning to not be afraid is as important as learning physical skills at Christchurch’s cheerleading school, All Star Pride.

Head coach Claire Stackhouse, who is also secretary of the New Zealand Cheerleading Association, shares this insight as she flicks the lights on at the squad’s gym headquarters on St Asaph Street ahead of a long afternoon of Sunday training. As she explains, competitive cheerleading today is an advanced sport that can only be mastered through practice, commitment and a team culture that fosters trust and confidence.

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“If you‘re having to hold another girl in the air or toss her in the air, then you have to be focussed and you have to do whatever it takes to keep your team member safe – and if you are that girl in the air, you have to learn how to trust in others and be brave.”

The walls of the gym are filled with various motivational messages, such as: ‘Today is another chance to make yourself proud’.

Claire observes that competitive cheerleading is on an upward trajectory. More than 200 young people – or 12 teams in total – train at the gym, from pre-schoolers through to teenagers. Skill levels are rising exponentially, almost as fast as old stereotypes about cheerleading being “dancing at the rugby” are fading. This is Claire’s eleventh year as a cheerleading coach. She first discovered the sport, via YouTube videos from the US, while still a university student studying law.

“I remember watching these 32 girls on the floor doing a fully choreographed routine with tumbling, dancing, and jumps. Having come from a dance and gymnastics background [including as a national Irish dancing champion], I thought it looked pretty cool!”

Competitive cheerleading was in its infancy in New Zealand back then, but Claire leapt at the opportunity to train as coach when All Star Cheerleaders founder Kimberley Ramsay began recruiting in Christchurch around that time.

“We’ve literally been around the world together since then... We’re always learning and do a lot of training and professional development work. That’s so important if you want to be a high performer. Planning and preparation is critical to success.”

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Claire’s grandfather was a partner in national law firm Lane Neave and her childhood dream had been to follow his footsteps into a legal career. In fact, she did complete her law degree and practiced for six years before the pull towards coaching won out.

“Nothing beats the thrill and joy and positivity of helping girls to grow into world class athletes. I love being a part of their lives and helping them to achieve their potential. There’s a position for everybody in cheerleading – it’s very inclusive...Our whole ethos is to create happy, healthy and empowered young people.”

Christchurch’s prominence in the cheerleading scene is such that it now has its own New Zealand development squad, with three teams poised to compete at the 2019 Global Dance and Cheer Championship in Hawaii this May. It follows championship success, both in New Zealand and Australia and further afield.

“We took a stunt group to China in 2017; that was the first time that Christchurch kids had been selected to wear Team New Zealand uniforms in an overseas competition; they won that competition.”

May’s global championship will be Claire’s third in Hawaii and she’s also been to two world championships in Florida.

“Cheerleading has taken me to more places than I could have ever imagined!”