When Michelle Williams was 12 she had to choose between racing cars and cheerleading. She chose the latter and has not looked back, turning her childhood love into a career that has seen her win international titles. Now, she heIps others do the same.
Now a manager of two All Star cheerleading gyms and a school liaison scout for cheerleaders, Williams leads cheerleading workshops at schools and encourages youngsters to join what she says is much more than a sport.
“I started cheerleading when I was 12 – that’s actually quite late to start a new sport,” says the now 26-year-old. “I’ve been doing it full time since I left school and it’s been great. It’s amazing to show people that different kinds of sports do have a career path.”
Williams coaches New Zealand’s development team, who have their eyes set on joining the national team and competing internationally, as well as the 24 members of the all-girl and the co-ed national representative teams that make up Team New Zealand. The teams competed in Orlando, Florida this year and the co-ed team came back with a bronze medal and the all-girl team with silver.
Williams herself isn’t a stranger to the podium, winning two golds in 2014 and one in 2015.
Now, Williams takes youngsters as young as 3 at All Star gyms in Auckland and turns them into world champions.
“You can learn everything there. You don’t need the splits, you don’t need to be able to do a cartwheel or a black flip, you can be very tall, you can be very short – any shape or size. The best thing about cheerleading is there’s always a place for everything.”
Once the domain of pert teens on the sidelines of rugby games, cheerleading has come a long way from the days of the Dallas Cowboys and SkyCity Cheerleaders.
“We want to try get away from that. We’re a performance sport and the Dallas Cowboys and SkyCity cheerleaders don’t do any of the throws and the flips that our athletes do. Our main focus is competition.”
It’s now much more acrobatic, rather than dance based and experts from the US come Downunder every year to coach the athletes and teach them new moves. Williams also attends coaching courses at least once a year to stay up to date.
The US remains the centre of the cheerleading world, developing the rules and updating the moves although All Stars owner Kimberley Ramsay is the president of the New Zealand Cheerleading Association, and runs courses for coaches all over New Zealand. Williams helps out, showing the young athletes new moves and how to keep safe while doing them.
“All the throws are a lot different these days,” Williams explains. “They’re a lot harder when compared to five years ago. Routines were very simple – but we have to keep up to date. We take the kids overseas every year to make sure they’re competitive, because obviously all the stunting and the tumbling and the flips and risks in the routine are a lot harder.
“I know from when I was in the world scene it was a lot easier than what they do today.”
“Kids that I’ve coached since they were 5 years old are now in the worlds team and they are doing crazy tricks – I was definitely a hard work over talent kind of kid so I think the talent in the past five even 10 years has improved for cheerleading in general but especially in All Stars.”
Williams believes the change from the pom-pom- rah-rah style of cheerleading has contributed to the growing reputation of the sport.
“Cheerleading is getting bigger, and it’s a bit more noticeable than it was a good five years ago.
“It’s not just a sport, it is a business. We have to keep up with the rules and safety stuff as well.”
But for Williams the big attraction was friendship and the confidence she gained from her sport.
“I was a very shy kid and [cheerleading] built my confidence up. It’s not just about the sport. I felt more confident and it was very disciplined which I liked. And I guess people cheering you on and motivating you as teenager really helped.
“I was a car racing driver when I was younger: it got to a point where I had to make a decision whether to do that or cheerleading and I chose cheerleading.
“Cheerleading at all the levels we have in New Zealand definitely showcases show far you can get.”