To start, a confession. I grew up thinking cheerleading basically consisted of girls shaking pom poms while shouting 'Two! Four! Six! Eight! Who do we appreciate!' on the sidelines of schoolboy American Football games, because that’s the sort of thing I saw in American TV shows and films of the 1980s.

But a few minutes watching the hit show 'Cheer' on Netflix – marvelling at the athleticism and coordination, the tumbles, twists and pyramid building – forced me to think again. It also provided a stark illustration of how cheerleading had become unhitched from its origins as a sideline activity to become a sporting discipline in its own right. I’d also gleaned this knowledge from my wife, who became a 'Raiderette' nearly 25 years ago when it was still quite new to Tirol. A time when 'they didn’t have enough costumes or enough pom poms to go around,' she recalls.

Now, as Barbara Katzenhofer, Sporting Director for the Raiders Cheer team, tells me, 'I don't have to advertise. I have waiting lists with two-year-olds on it because the girls can’t start until they’re four'.

Building the pyramid

As one of the fastest-growing female sports in the world, the International Cheer Union (ICU) now has 116 member nations with an estimated 7.5 million participants worldwide.

Austria is one of the places where the growth has been most pronounced, and in 2022, the national team won its first gold medal at the Cheerleading World Championship in Orlando, Florida.

A chance to see just how much cheerleading in Austria has developed arrives soon when Innsbruck hosts the Sport Austria Finals for the very first time at the end of May and beginning of June.

On Saturday, June 1st, the main arena at the Olympiahalle will host the cheerleading because, as Katzenhofer tells me, 'we have the most athletes of any sport taking part'.

Katzenhofer, originally from Upper Austria, has been in Tirol for a while now: 'I’ve been with the club for eight years. I was a coach, doing the seniors for around six years. When I started eight years ago we had three teams and now we have twelve. I’m also part of the Federation ÖCCV (Österreichischer Cheerleading und Cheerdance Verband). There are six of us at the ÖCCV and I’m in charge of education, fair play, medical stuff and safeguarding.'

Leading from the front

Katzenhofer was never actually a cheerleader herself. She got into it through sports therapy – a friend brought her into training to do the warm-ups and cool-downs. Two months later she was leading training and, amazingly, only six months later was head coach. 'I am coming from the dance side, ballet dancing. I had to educate myself about cheerleading. As a result, all my coaches get a very good education. That’s something I’m very conscious of.'

Cheerleading has two distinct categories now, says Katzenhofer: 'Cheer performance is more dance. Cheerleading is more acrobatic. In the eight years I've been involved it has stepped up every single year; the level of difficulty, the technique, the athleticism, the conditioning. This year we started with a kind of mind-coaching because there is so much pressure. You have the good things about development but you also get a little bit of pressure. So from seven or eight years old when the girls start to compete the pressure is very high, so you have to decide what they are ready for. They have to love it. It doesn't matter what age they are. The most important thing for me is seeing a smile in the eyes of the girls.'

Basically, as the standard rises, so does the pressure. As Katzenhofer puts it, 'everything is getting faster'.

'In cheerleading competition you only have two minutes and 15 seconds to show what you can do. There are no second chances. Even if everything is good in the warm-up, you can get on the competition mat and everything sucks. So you have two minutes and 15 to be clean, to be stable, to be cheery, to get the timing right.'

The ÖCCV was only officially accepted into the Sport Austria family in 2023. It is now therefore recognized as a sport. This was a major cause for celebration in the Austrian cheerleading community. 'Now we can network with other associations and get more reach and media attention which helps with the plan to make our sport better known,' said ÖCCV President Julia Harrer.

'We have the recognition now. We are working together with the government. The road just started for us. Now we go on. More projects, going into schools and stuff,' Katzenhofer adds.

cheering for the home teams

And specifically on the Sport Austria Finals, Katzenhofer says 'it’s really good that we can compete at home, because our athletes don’t have to travel. It’s a big thing financially, and mentally. But now they can sleep at home, they know the surroundings, they know the people there, their families are around. It makes a big difference for the mindset.'

'This sport really builds people. Because it’s not an individual sport, it’s a team sport. In cheerleading everyone needs to be there. If you’re building a pyramid and one person is not there in the mind, it’s not fit. So this really builds good people out of them. We have a lot of girls from difficult backgrounds. We are working together with orphanages, and each year they are so happy that they are into sports because they grow so much. The girls have to be there. They have to be on time for training, they have to look presentable, look after their costumes, their shoes. They grow up, and this is one of the things I love most about cheerleading. You build people. I’ve been fighting so much in this sport. Even at 90 I will be there! I’ve had to fight so much in the past eight years for these girls.'

Taking part

I also talked to someone who will be taking part. Vita Fink told me what cheerleading – and the Sport Austria Finals being in Innsbruck – means to her.

How long have you been cheerleading?
Vita Fink: 'Eight years now. I started when I was eight.'

What was it that drew you to cheerleading?
'My older sister has always been a cheerleader. First she did cheerleading and now she does cheer dance and I wanted to try something new. I was doing cross-country skiing, the summer version of that ... but I wasn’t enjoying it anymore. My sister offered to get me into a cheer practice, so I tried out and I got in!'

Can you tell me what it is that you love about cheerleading?
'I think it’s the combination of the physical and the mental aspect. The whole team is like a second family to me and I really enjoy that I can talk to them and be open with them as well. Also, the physical aspect that I like doing sports, I like to be active. So it combines everything.'

Can you tell me more about the teamwork aspect of cheerleading?
'It’s really interesting because a few people that I’m now very close to didn’t join at the same time as me. They joined two years later but now they’re some of my closest friends. It’s really interesting that people from different schools, who have different interests come together for cheerleading.'

Do you find it physcically tough? Do you feel drained after practice sessions?
'Yeah! But especially when we’re preparing for competetions we need to do a lot of practice so it’s obvious we’re going to be exhausted. But you still have to give 120 percent so that everything works out and nobody gets hurt either.'

Can you tell me where outside of Tirol you’ve been to compete?
'I was actually part of the Austrian National youth team in 2022 and was supposed to go to the World Championships in Orlando, Florida. Austria won its first gold medal at that Championship. But then so many people had to sign off because of Covid and didn’t want to take the risk of paying and then not being able to go. So that was a bit devastating. But I’ve been to Vienna and Graz to compete.'

Can you tell us a little bit about the Sport Austria Finals? Are you looking forward to it?
'The whole team – and, I think, Innsbruck in general – is really excited to host the Sport Austria Finals because it’s usually only the capital, Vienna, that gets to host these kind of events. So it’s really an honour for us that we get to be the host. Innsbruck is more of a touristy town, so to have something like this, an Austrian event, is a bit different.'

And I guess you will have more friends and family around than usual to see you perform too?
'Yeah, I’m really glad they can be there because the last two years it was in Graz and before that in Vienna. So it was a lot for my family to go there, pay for hotels and everything.'

So now you get to go home and sleep in your own bed.
'Yes, exactly!'

That’s great. Good luck!
'Thanks. Bye!'

Sport Austria Finals 2024

The Sport Austria Finals is Austria’s largest multi-sport event and has been organised by Sport Austria since 2021. The aim is to bring as many sports as possible together in one place over the course of a few days, thus giving member associations much greater media presence. This year more than 6.500 athletes will compete in 45 sports with the aim of becoming Austrian National Champions. The event kicks off with a show on the forecourt of the Landestheater on Wednesday, May 29th.

For more information visit the website here: https://www.sportaustriafinals.at/

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