A decade of hard work and confidence building has finally paid off for three Kentville cheer athletes who took home first-place medals at a national competition.
Valley Cheer Athletics club founding members Emma Taylor and Britt Levy, both 16, and Sophie Keddy, 17, helped propel their nine-person squad to gold at the Canadian Cheer Evolution national championship March 6.
It was an energy-raising routine that had their coaches and parents cheering from the stands and the girls screaming through the routine and fighting to focus on hitting the rest of their poses before celebrating their victory.
“We were already so excited, and then we hit the last stunt, and one of our teammates screams, ‘we won!’ And we all just knew we’d done it. It was amazing,” says Levy.
Squad coach Melissa Morrison and gym owner Megan Shepherd sat with girls after the first day of competition to go over their score and revealed they were in first place going into the second day of competition – a result that was met with screams despite the reveal being inside a restaurant.
Knowing victory was in sight, the girls went into their next day of competition with a sense of confidence their coaches had never seen before. As their last pyramid was pulled off near the routine’s end, a teammate yelled, “we won!” and the team erupted in screams as they realized they’d placed first.
“We went into the performance ready to put it all out there and leave it all on the mat – everything goes, no matter what,” says Keddy. “And we did exactly that.”
The winning result came after years of repeated practice and hard work needed to develop not just the strength and stamina for competition, but also the confidence.
The sport is considered to be 30 per cent physical and 70 per cent mental – something that can take people by surprise.
Taylor says the team’s young flyers needed help this year in believing they could hit their marks, and built up their confidence just in time for the national competition.
But she says it’s not just the flyers who can lack confidence. Taylor, Keddy and Levy all say it takes regular work to remind themselves they have what it takes to attempt and later perfect new stunts.
“You can be told that yes, you can do a back handspring, or a back tuck, but actually doing that skill is terrifying. The mental aspect of it is ‘I’m going to fall on my face.’ You know you can do it, but you have to push yourself to get there,” says Keddy.
And this spike in confidence happened just in time for the competition, since it also makes up a significant portion of how judges score teams at competitions.
“You need to hit your skills with confidence and you need to be able to show the crowd you’re having an amazing time on the floor at the same time,” says Keddy.
Building up confidence has been the main challenge for the young organization that was unknown when it started 11 years ago.
With some wins came other losses, and it took several years for them to find their competitive stride. Gym owner Megan Shepherd says even with constant preaching from herself and Morrison, it took years for the girls to realize how talented they are.
The mentality that they were just a small club from the Annapolis Valley may have taken years to shed as they faced off against massive squads from bigger cities, but with this first-place win now under their belts, a whole new energy has taken hold of the group.
“It’s taken them a long time to step into that building with almost a little chip on your shoulder, like, ‘I am good enough to be here.’ This weekend they took what we were saying, and you could just see them starting to embrace it, and believing in each other,” says Shepherd. “You’ve got to be incredibly brave to get up there and do that.”
Morrison says even after returning from the competition, their first-place finish still hasn’t sunk in.
She’s watched the competition video again and again, and says she can see the exact moment when her team realized they’d won.
“It still makes me cry because of the sense of pride I have, watching them believe in each other,” she says.
The athletes have, of course, also dedicated thousands of hours to honing their stamina and technique to keep learning new stunts to wow away the competition.
Taylor remembers joining the club when she couldn’t even do a floor roll. She now feels like she can’t stop because she’s simply come too far.
“It’s just so crazy looking back to when I couldn’t do that stuff - to now. And I always know I’ve got my teammates with me, who always yell at me when I’m doing my stunt and make me feel like I can do it,” says Taylor.
The routines consist of two minutes and 30 seconds of cardio and athletics-intensive routines that leave the cheer athletes breathing hard from giving each pose everything they’ve got every time they strike one.
Their club size has become their defining strength as they compete against clubs that are sometimes twice their size.
The three athletes agree their team size has allowed them to forge trust and is something that sets them apart from the competition.
“We’re all so close, so the bond we have going on that mat helps us. We all believe in each other and it’s helped us get to where we are right now,” says Levy.
Shepherd and Morrison have watched as the athletes have transitioned from young starters to veterans within the club and have seen them take on leadership roles during practice time.
Keddy remembers when she herself would look up to the older club members and she hopes she, along with Levy and Taylor, can now serve as a role model to younger members.
“Our team are those girls, is the team that our younger clubmates and teammates are looking up to, which feels really, really good,” she says.
“Especially when we do so well, to show them they can do it, too, if they work hard and believe in themselves.”