A dozen students from Marion M. Graham Collegiate are set to take on the world when the school's pom team competes at the 2020 World School Performance Cheerleading Championships Jan. 31 to Feb. 2.
Coach Kristen Robertson said Marion Graham is the first high school team from Saskatchewan to receive a world competition bid, thanks to the squad's exceptional 2018-19 season.
"Our team last year was really fortunate. We were city champions, we were provincial champions and with that the girls also won an amazing opportunity to compete at Disneyworld in Orlando, Fla.," she said. "We will be competing against countries from all over the world and there are going to be a lot of teams — it's a huge competition."
Preparations for pom season began in late October, but with the world event on the schedule the team added daily noon-hour practices to its regular twice-weekly afterschool workouts ahead of a recent competition in Martensville and the upcoming Florida trip.
"We focused quite a bit on our skills and technique this season so we can go in strong to competition," said Alexa Kliewer, a Grade 12 student who has been a part of the team for three years.
"The routine this year is really challenging compared to last year. It is really fast, quick changes and there are a lot of jumps and different aspects like ripples. It is really fun dancing with a good group of people as well, your friends. One thing I really like about pom is being able to dance with friends. That is also what makes the routine fun."
The team will perform twice at the world competition. The initial performance allows the squad to receive feedback from the judges while the second performance is an opportunity for the routine to reflect the suggested improvements. Scoring and placement is based on the two performances combined.
"In the (United) States it is really competitive, so we tried to keep our routine in the American style where we have less theme elements in our routine and more technical elements," said Grade 12 student Amelia Gagnon. "It's technically difficult this year. It is very sharp and very fast. I really like that because it makes us stand out."
For team members, the opportunity to perform on a world stage is a definite plus, but the overall experience provided by the sport and Marion Graham's program is something they have embraced.
"Pom is a very intense sport," Kliewer said. "It takes lots of preparation, skill, and talent. Lots of us have been training for this for multiple years. I have been on the team for three years and I have learned a lot from other members."
Team members come from different backgrounds, including gymnasts and dancers who have trained in disciplines ranging from jazz and hip hop to Ukrainian dance. The opportunity to bring each dancer's skills together as one and compete as a team is what makes pom special, Gagnon said.
"I really like the whole performance element," she said. "You put on a show. You are presenting a theme, you have music that goes along with the theme and all together you have the technical elements, the difficulty, the performance, the teamwork — all of that are really great elements in pom."
Students in Saskatoon high schools compete in pom, cheer and hip hop at the intercollegiate level. Pom is a dance-based sport —named for the poms used by competitors. It differs from cheer because it does not include the stunting that is part of cheer routines, Robertson explained.
"It's really nice to see this sport growing, especially at Marion Graham which is a small school," she said. "It's so nice to see how successful we have been. We want to build it (the program) stronger each year and get more people involved."
Robertson said the event is a chance to see what schools and teams from around the world are doing for routines and a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the sport together. But when her team hits the mat, it's all about the performance.
"There's nothing like when you step on that mat with your teammates and you perform," she said. "It is such a rush and a thrill and the adrenaline keeps going, especially when you walk off the mat and feel successful and know that all of that hard work has paid off. It's so exciting to watch them and see that enthusiasm and excitement in their eyes."