Meet Michelle, who is changing the face of cheerleading

It’s Monday night and Michelle Parkinson looks forward to this day all week.

She has two sets of teenage twins and is studying for two qualifications. She’s also just lost 50 kilos.

It’s fair to say that for this 42-year-old, life is busy.

But when she sets foot in the gym each Monday, she’s ready for some me-time.

And while she’s at it, she’s smashing the stereotypes of what it means to be a cheerleader.

For up to seven days a week for the past five years Michelle has been at the gym to watch her daughters cheer and dance.

Tonight, she’s getting on the mat at a western Sydney gym.

A woman walks on a gym mat and smiles.A woman walks on a gym mat and smiles.
Michelle says she’s loving both the physical and mental challenges of cheer.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

“I can’t say that I was ever looking forward to doing exercise before,” Michelle says.

“But I know now when I go of a Monday night, I’m guaranteed 60 minutes of laughter, hard work, banter and character building.”

Michelle trains with about 10 other adults at Reign Elite in Penrith — mainly parents with children in cheer, dance and tumble classes at the same place.

They do stunts, pom-pom work and a bit of tumbling.

“The other half are sort of a little bit petrified of doing some things, but we make it work.”

Members of an adult cheer team pose for a photo.Members of an adult cheer team pose for a photo.
The adult cheer team at Reign Elite are gearing up to compete in their first competition.(Supplied: Tyjana Domars)

It all started because most of the mums were spending countless hours there anyway.

“Half the time I can spend more time with the coaches and kids there [at the gym] than what I do at home,” Michelle says.

Along with the physical benefits, it’s given the mother of four a confidence boost.

“For me it was working on my self-esteem, confidence and friendships,” she says.

“And not worrying about how I look to the outside world.”

The team has even signed up to compete in a virtual event at the end of next month.

Part of the motivation is to educate people on how the sport is changing.

“I’d like for people to realise it’s not just a pom-pom, jumping-around, short-skirt, make-up, type of thing.

“It’s a very competitive sport and the athletes put their body through a lot,” she says.

Want a tight-knit sport? This could be your community

A group of athletes sit on the floor and laugh at the gym.A group of athletes sit on the floor and laugh at the gym.
The motto at Reign Elite is Family on and off the Floor.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The motto at Reign Elite is ‘Family on and off the floor’.

Tyjana Domars and her mother Kirsten own the gym and take pride in the community they’ve created.

“You just see the bonds the athletes have in the gym and they keep those bonds outside of the gym as well,” Tyjana says.

As you walk into Reign Elite, the athleticism of this extreme sport is plain to see.

Girls are thrown to dizzying heights before gravity intervenes.

The regular spills and falls are spectacular and wince-inducing — but these athletes are tough and courageous. They’ll get straight up and persist for perfection.

Ages range from two to 46, and classes vary from All Star to All Abilities, for those with a disability.

Jessica Evans, 17, appreciates the gym’s inclusiveness.

She’s legally blind in her left eye, but that doesn’t stop her from competing at the club’s highest level.

An athlete stands on the shoulders of another athlete.An athlete stands on the shoulders of another athlete.
Jessica is legally blind in her left eye, but has been cheering for nine years.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

And competitions are a big deal.

The Australian All-Star Cheerleading Federation’s Nationals Comp is the largest cheer and dance event in the world outside of the United States.

Across their 19 events last year, there were more than 52,000 competitors in total.

Jessica’s mum Janine never thought she’d be watching her daughter in a cheerleading competition.

“No way,” she says.

“I guess I always hoped and tried to put every opportunity in front of her.

“But a team sport, catching people from the air, where you tumble and run across a mat with a really small space and lots of people on the floor, no way.”

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Jessica was part of this Reign Elite team competing at the Nationals Competition last year.(Australian All Star Cheer Federation)

Naturally, she couldn’t be prouder.

“She’s always been intelligent and amazing in my eyes, but to watch it in front of other people now, is really just another proud moment I guess for me as a mum, and her dad just beams every time he sees it,” Janine says.

So how does Jess cheer if she’s vision impaired?

Space to play or pause, M to mute, left and right arrows to seek, up and down arrows for volume.

Here’s a bit of Jessica stunting, acting as a base (notice she’s on the right) and tumbling.(ABC News)

Jessica can’t see the floor and has no perception of depth.

But she’s not afraid to stunt, tumble or base.

She also has no peripheral vision on her left side, so to avoid a collision her coach Alicia Perkins positions her carefully during stunts.

“When we do stunts where the flyer runs in, if I’m on the wrong side it could be quite dangerous,” Jessica says.

“It just all of a sudden comes at her,” Alicia says.

During a routine, Jessica counts her steps and relies on the people around her to judge where she needs to be.

When formations change, her coach makes sure everyone else moves out of the way.

“Last year there was a lot of movement to get to the pyramid,” Alicia says.

“Everybody else needed to give her a clear pathway, where she followed another person. Sometimes she might grab their shirt.”

She also heavily relies on coloured markers.

“Bright colours are my best friend pretty much!” Jessica says.

According to Alicia, Jessica puts everything on the line.

She’s even taken on some coaching

Last year, Jessica started coaching junior teams.

“I’ve always loved kids, but kids with disabilities, they have a certain place in my heart, because I am a kid with a disability,” she says.

A teenage girl is held in the air by three athletes while she poses with both arms straight up.A teenage girl is held in the air by three athletes while she poses with both arms straight up.
Jessica Evans has taken on the challenge of coaching younger athletes and is thriving on the experience.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

She’s thrived in the role and cherishes the relationships she’s made with her students.

“She’s just got that presence about her, that positivity and that’s what makes her so special. So having that disability but not using it, she’s utilising it,” Alicia says.

This is Jessica’s ninth year of cheer, and she still loves the atmosphere just as much as when she first started.

“When I come into the gym, you could have the worst day in the world, I can come back from an exam and come into here and spend the four or five hours that I’m here completely happy.

This sport has next-level support

Among the athletes here is 18-year-old Drew Stahlhut, whose team qualified to compete at this year’s Cheerleading Worlds in Florida before it was cancelled due to coronavirus.

A teenage girl jumps in the air and does the splits.A teenage girl jumps in the air and does the splits.
Drew’s team qualified for the World’s in Florida this year, but they couldn’t go because of COVID.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Drew has used cheer as a retreat from the pressures of school and teenage life.

“It’s like an escape for me,” she says.

“Last year, when I was doing my HSC, I was in a lot of stress and anxiety from studying, and then when you go to dancing [and cheer] it’s literally the biggest escape ever.”

She formed a strong bond with her teammates, many of whom were dealing with the same issues.

“We all just made sure that the gym was our happy place,” she says.

“A couple of the girls that were a bit older who had done it the year before were also really supportive too.”

It’s about everyone, and their parents

A girl hangs on a bar and smiles at the camera.A girl hangs on a bar and smiles at the camera.
Kiana loves going to cheer and dance classes at Reign Elite, and regularly performs on stage.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

Jenny is another mum who never thought her child would be involved in something like cheer.

Her daughter Kiana Roberts is 11 and has Autism Spectrum Disorder, ADHD, Sensory Processing Disorder, Motor Dyspraxia and anxiety.

She started at Reign Elite in the All Abilities Cheer two years ago.

“It’s helped her with her confidence, and it’s helped her with her abilities,” Jenny says.

Kiana has made new friends and her mother says her school teachers and therapists have noticed the effect it’s had.

“Her therapists, especially her physio and OT have seen the improvements in her, even with her co-ordination.

“She’s able to do more stuff and not get so tired, her muscles don’t get so sore and that comes down to what she does in cheer.”

Kiana loves performing and trusts her coaches to look after her like she would her mum.

“She’ll go backstage with her coaches and not have to cling to me,” Jenny says.

“Even though she doesn’t talk much to other people, she’ll talk to them about what she has to do and she’ll do great.”

“I love it. Every time I see her I just — it’s an indescribable feeling, every time I see her perform I get tears.

“It’s tears of joy and emotion.”

Despite the stereotypes, this is a true community

Four women look and smile at the camera in a cheerleading gym.Four women look and smile at the camera in a cheerleading gym.
Jessica, Michelle, Drew and Kiana describe Reign Elite as their “cheer family”.(ABC News: Brendan Esposito)

The Australian All-Star Cheer Federation says participation growth is increasing between 9 and 15 per cent each year.

A former gym owner herself, Alicia has seen first-hand the huge growth of cheer and dance at community level during her 18-year involvement.

“Cheer when I was younger was never a thing. We started as an acrobatics sort of thing and it evolved into cheer,” she says.

And despite what you may have seen in movies, she says it’s a friendly atmosphere.

“All the different clubs support each other,” Alicia says.

“At competitions you are not competitive. You want to support each other.