At the top of her arc, Channing Smendziuk looks suspended in time, defying gravity, a quick twist and she starts her descent as three sets of outstretched arms catch her before she crashes to the ground.
The 20-year-old bachelor of science student is a member of the Brandon University Bobcats cheer team. Tonight, in front of friends, family and fans of the Bobcats’ volleyball teams, the squad makes its highly anticipated debut.
"We’ve thrown this together in just a couple of months, so we’re kind of nervous but really excited," Smendziuk said following a team practice at the Healthy Living Centre yesterday morning.
The 5-foot-9, 125-pound flyer had no prior cheerleading experience, but somehow became the catalyst for the squad’s creation.
In cheerleading, there are four main positions during a stunt: the flyer, two bases and a spotter.
Smendziuk approached Russ Paddock about the idea last year and said the university’s athletic director was supportive of the program right from the beginning.
After taking the initiative to track down a coach, the team hosted its first tryout in November.
"Everyone has been really committed and dedicated to it," Smendziuk said about the team that has 18 members — 16 women and two men.
With only three members with previous cheer experience, the first practices were a little chaotic as everyone learned their roles on the team.
"Now that we know each other and have relationships and bonds, it makes it easier to pull off the stunts," Smendziuk said. "There’s been some really sore days. We’ve definitely knocked each other down, but we’re right there to pick each other up and keep going."
Fans shouldn’t expect to see a cheerleading team on the sidelines screaming with pompoms in their hands, according to coach Lisa Boyle.
"Cheerleading is an upbeat, fast, two-and-a-half-minute routine that has constant moving with stunts, dancing, tumbling and jumping," she said. "Cheerleading isn’t just pompoms and girls with big blonde hair. It’s more than that and we hope by bringing this to the university level, people will see it for what it is — a sport."
Boyle, who hails from southern Ontario, has 12 years of cheerleading experience and eight years experience coaching.
Her optimistic and peppy personality never saw the lack of experience on the team as a negative.
"It was exciting because then they have no bad habits," Boyle said with a smile.
She has put the team through the paces, too. Twice a week the team gets up in the dark, often in -30 C conditions, to practise before class. On Friday, they meet after school and Boyle’s husband, Aaron, who is a soldier at CFB Shilo and runs them through strength and fitness training.
"It’s the best way to get a workout without knowing you’re getting a workout," said Tess Spas, one of the team members with past experience who Boyle has leaned on for help.
The 5-foot-4, 160-pound base came to BU from Beausejour, which has one of the top cheerleading programs in Manitoba.
Spas, a 19-year-old psychology major, said some of her friends and co-workers are going to check out the action tonight. She understands there are some cynics, but believes the sport’s skill and athleticism will win over the hearts and minds of the crowd.
"I’m hoping that the crowd is supportive and not too hard on us," Spas said. "You’re always nervous. Even after seven years of competing you still get nervous, but it’s good because it gives you adrenalin and keeps you pumped up so you don’t overthink things. You don’t want things to go wrong, but they’re going to."
For Smendziuk, who is from Brandon, this is just the first test for a team that she hopes will be competing in Winnipeg against other cheer teams next year.
"I hope to prove any of the skeptics wrong and gain their support," Smendziuk said. "We have to prove to everyone that we are a BU athletic team."