We won a silver medal? At the cheerleading world champs?!
At the beginning of the New Zealand All Girl Elite routine during last week’s World Cheerleading Championships, the American commentators sound rather bemused by our team’s enthusiastic NZ-themed sign waving. “Very unique,” one of them remarks. “You turn that ‘N’ on it’s side and you’ve got a ‘Z’,” the other commentator laughs quietly. “Very creative.” Within less than a minute, nobody is laughing anymore, as the team breezes through flawless pyramid formations, sky-high basket tosses and dizzying back handsprings to rapturous applause.
Coming away with a silver medal, the team’s success has reached a proud local audience on TikTok, many of whom appear to be encountering the sport in a local context for the very first time. “Just realising our country does cheerleading”, one user wrote, with over 3,000 likes in agreement. “OK been in NZ all my life and we do cheerleading WHERE”, wrote another. This reaction is exactly why cheerleading needs more attention in Aotearoa, president of the New Zealand cheerleading association Kimberley Ramsay explains. “We’re actually really talented at the sport,” she says. “For a really small country we really hold our own.”
Speaking over the phone from Disneyworld Florida, home of the 2023 world championships, Ramsay is also one of the coaches that led the All Girl Elite team (comprised of athletes aged 16-24) to the podium. It’s a goal that has been five years in the making thanks to Covid delays, and one that required each team member to travel to practise in Auckland three times a week from the likes of Tauranga and Hamilton. “They’ve been working really hard,” she says. “Everyone was just absolutely thrilled to win silver… to podium and win a medal against such fierce competition is incredible.”
Cheering is a unique team sport, Ramsay explains, because it relies on both the overall team dynamics and the individual stunt groups – the clusters of four who lift the “fliers” – working in total synergy. Routines are judged on elements including lifting, pyramids, tumbles, tosses, kicks and spins. As for the N-Z sign-waving? It’s an old favourite. “We’ve probably been doing that for the past 12 years,” laughs Ramsay. “It’s unique to us and it always scores really well.”
Although it may seem like all fun and pom poms, Ramsay says the competition environment can get extremely tense. The full New Zealand contingent? 250 people. The total number of people at the tournament? 30,000. “The athletes really feel the pressure of competing for and representing their country,” she says. “If one person makes a mistake, then that affects the whole team. It’s really high emotions and a lot of pressure.”
There were strong showings this year from Canada, Japan, USA and Austria, but naturally there’s one rival that trumps all. Under the TikTok of New Zealand’s silver routine, people remain outraged about Australia’s gold, nabbed by just 1.8 points. “I just watched Aussie’s one and wth!! How did NZ not win? So rigged”, wrote one user. “As an Australian I have to say I’m confused how we got first and NZ got 2nd? This was a much cleaner routine?” wrote another.
Ramsay has seen the comments, but is quick to shrug it off. “The Australian team didn’t have a clean routine – they had a fall. So I think that’s why people think we were robbed,” she says matter-of-factly. “We’re happy that it came down under, but we will definitely be back next year to win the title.” Referencing some “snarky comments” left by the Australian squad on TikTok, Ramsay says New Zealand is proud to maintain their professionalism, even in defeat.
“We say ‘good luck’, we shake hands, we congratulate. We’re good sports in New Zealand,” she says. “We don’t throw underhanded bowls, put it that way.”
With most of the team returning home this week, Ramsay says the athletes will have some downtime to reflect on their success. Aside from the All Girl’s silver, NZ also came away with two bronze placings, and a fifth and tenth place. But then, after just a few weeks, it will be back to work. “We will start trials soon for the next teams and the next tour,” Ramsay says. “And then we’ll really start pushing the difficulty levels and doing better than we’ve ever done before.”