'No one says cheerleading is tough... until they do it'

Cheerleading squad Legacy All-Stars during a training session at *Scape in Orchard Road. It is not unusual for teams to put in up to 12 hours of training, seven days a week, in the months leading up to the national cheerleading competition held each
Cheerleading squad Legacy All-Stars during a training session at *Scape in Orchard Road. It is not unusual for teams to put in up to 12 hours of training, seven days a week, in the months leading up to the national cheerleading competition held each March.ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Cheerleading squad Legacy All-Stars during a training session at *Scape in Orchard Road. It is not unusual for teams to put in up to 12 hours of training, seven days a week, in the months leading up to the national cheerleading competition held each
Cheerleading squad Legacy All-Stars during a training session at *Scape in Orchard Road. It is not unusual for teams to put in up to 12 hours of training, seven days a week, in the months leading up to the national cheerleading competition held each March.ST PHOTO: AZIZ HUSSIN
Mr Andrasahrol Mamat (third from left), formerly a member of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Magnum Force, coaching independent cheerleading team Legacy All-Stars. 
At right is the National University of Singapore's KR Steppers.
Mr Andrasahrol Mamat (third from left), formerly a member of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's Magnum Force, coaching independent cheerleading team Legacy All-Stars. At right is the National University of Singapore's KR Steppers.PHOTOS: AZIZ HUSSIN, COURTESY OF STEPHANIE LOH

Keen competition, athleticism are part of the sport, not just pompoms

WITH its pompoms, chants and colourful costumes, cheerleading is not usually associated with physical endurance.

But when a student died earlier this month after performing a backflip, it was a tragic reminder of the dangers that this seemingly risk-free pastime can bring.

In the wake of 19-year-old Lai Qing Xiang's death, Ngee Ann Polytechnic ordered its cheer squad to suspend training indefinitely.

It was a decision that has left the team, called Magnum Force, at one of the lowest points in its 25-year history.

At its peak, it was Singapore's top squad, winning the champion trophy at the national cheerleading contest for five straight years.

And its story provides a snapshot of the intense competition and athleticism that characterise cheerleading in Singapore.

Former coach Lenny Foo told The Straits Times how Magnum Force reached its zenith in the early to mid-2000s.

At competitions, the team was performing stunts that no other squads could match at the time.

"When other teams were doing back tucks in midair, we were already doing layouts," said Mr Foo, who coached Magnum Force for seven years from 2001.

Performing a tuck is no mean feat, with jumpers bending their knees and drawing them to their chest as they carry out the backflip.

But a layout is even more difficult as the body must be fully extended and the legs unbent.

The training was also physically demanding.

"Instead of lifting weights, we lifted our teammates," said Mr Foo, who is now a sales and accounts manager in Dubai.

"We did squats with another member standing on our shoulders. Basic cheer stunts were incorporated into our training."

The team was the national champion five years in a row until 2005. But the decline began in 2006, when it came second behind Nanyang Technological University's Aces.

In 2007, Magnum Force managed only fourth position. It was a moment that remains etched in the memory of former member Andrasahrol Mamat.

He had joined the team in 2007, in his first year at Ngee Ann Polytechnic.

"There was a lot of pressure from our seniors to win the competition," said the 25-year-old, who is now a Customs officer. "They were part of the champion batch. All of us, we really cried... We gave our all during training sessions.

"When we failed in the competition, it was a big blow to us."

Those days may be long gone, but cheerleading remains a big part of his life.

Mr Andrasahrol now coaches independent team Legacy All-Stars twice a week. "I count myself lucky that my work schedule allows me to still be active in cheerleading," he said.

For most teams, there is one main reason to train: the national cheerleading competition held each March.

It is not unusual for them to put in up to 12 hours of training, seven days a week, in the months leading up to the contest.

Naysayers often dismiss cheerleading as a pastime for pompom-wielding girls who simply want to stand around and look pretty.

But 28-year-old Stephanie Loh - who founded cheer squad KR Steppers with 40 members in 2005 - tells a very different story.

"After our first training session, which involved a lot of running, push-ups and sit-ups, about 20 members dropped out," she said. "Nobody expects cheerleading to be tough, until they are actually in it."

Like bodybuilders and athletes, cheerleaders make strength-conditioning workouts a part of their training routine.

Aces founder Ian Ang remembers lifting up to 60kg in weights, sprinting and sweating through bouts of push-ups and sit-ups.

"I probably ate 15 egg whites and drank one litre of milk almost daily for two years," said the 32-year-old, who is now a fund manager.

Strength training was crucial, he added, especially for male cheerleaders who had to stand straight while holding a teammate aloft.

But most of the university teams that sprouted during the early and mid-2000s started out with little funding and resources.

And the majority of members were not from gymnastics or dancing backgrounds. This meant they had to start from the bottom.

Mr Ang said he watched the cheerleading routines in the Hollywood film Bring It On more than 10 times.

"There was no YouTube in 2003, so we kept watching the movie and freezing the screen to learn their routines... Everything was largely self-taught as we didn't have a coach."

In a similar vein, Ms Loh recalls KR Steppers training in the National University of Singapore's sports hall past midnight for almost two years, after the more established sports or dance groups had packed up for the evening.

The club also borrowed mats from Aces, as it did not have the funds at the time.

"As a new group, we didn't have proper facilities and (a proper) training venue," she said.

Both teams now receive support and funding from their universities, and are able to hire proper coaches and invest in the right equipment.

Despite being in Dubai, Mr Foo still pays close attention to the cheerleading scene here.

While he declined to comment on the country's first cheerleading fatality, he said: "I just hope that Magnum Force will stay strong and get back on its feet. It is possible; you just need commitment to make it happen.

"In fact, if they need me to go back and help out, I will."

leepearl@sph.com.sg