At 28-years-old, after a devastating end to a seven-year relationship and during a time of self-discovery, I dated an acrobat. While watching him and his friends perform amazing acts of vaudeville, I was inspired to take up acrobatics. I had done gymnastics for about six months as a child and only stopped because the program was cancelled. One day as I was working at an RMIT University open day, giving away free Lipton ice tea, a girl approached me, asking if I would like to join the cheerleading squad. I laughed saying, “I’m not really into pompoms, but that I’d be ok with learning the acrobatics”. She laughed back at me. This stigma still pervades today and I’ve had to correct many people. A few weeks later, I semi-reluctantly went along to the cheerleading tryouts. Two months later, I competed for the first time and so began an obsession that would take over my life for more than 10 years.
Breaking an Arm
It didn’t take me long to work out that I wanted to be the best in this sport – ambition, and competitiveness is in my blood. Five years in, I was competing in level 6, the highest level and my team had just performed at the World Championships in the USA. We placed 12th. We were a new team figuring out a level that had never been done before in Australia. Most people were too scared of the danger and level 6 coaches were scarce. A long journey lay ahead of us. On a training night just a couple of weeks after flying home from the US, newly inspired to better my skills after seeing the level of talent on display in the USA, I was dropped while upside down in the air, and I used my arm to save my neck. I’ll never forget hearing my bone break. I never even looked at it but I knew I had messed up my forearm significantly. I lay on the gym floor in increasing agony while waiting 45 minutes for an ambulance, my bone protruding through the skin. But it was the dislocation of my elbow that was more painful than the break. I had a compound fracture on my ulna, a 90 per cent fracture on my radius and a dislocation at my elbow and wrist.
It scared me so much…
And throughout my recovery I swore I’d never go back. In hospital, I had reoccurring nightmares that I had actually broken my neck. I found out later that the painkillers that I was on, Endone, are prone to give you nightmares. Never-the-less, I was traumatised.
Eight months later, despite a few complications and a titanium-infused forearm, I was feeling healed and no longer sure I wanted to up and quit cheerleading. Little did I know it was going to be the biggest mental challenge of my life. In hindsight, I did too much too soon but hindsight is a wonderful thing. In the lead up to my first competition back, I discovered a debilitating anxiety. It would start building about three hours before training and try to stop me from going. I convinced myself that I was having premonitions breaking my neck. Every time we learned a new skill or I had to go upside down, I would see myself falling, hitting the ground on my head, or I’d just see a blackout and I’d be dead. My teammates were scared of working with me because my fear was overriding my skills and they were frustrated about my illogical response to techniques I’d previously found so easy.
But, despite all this, I managed to push myself through competition. Though I was proud of myself, I was a mental wreck. After that, I took some time off and re-evaluated things.
Heartbroken, I watched my team go back to the World Championships and take home the silver medal. They made history, the first Australian team to ever make top three. After the team came back and I’d had some space, I realised I couldn’t let the sport go and I didn’t want to let this fear control my life. This time, however, I was going to do it differently. My confidence grew from having lots of positive experiences at training, and learning to trust my bases again, but my anxiety was always there in the background, waiting. I made it onto the team to go back to Worlds the following year, in 2017. We came back with a bronze trophy and an unbeatable feeling that we truly were all-stars.
During this time, I had also decided that because my acting career was not blooming, I wanted to start producing. I crowdfunded, Produced and Directed a documentary about the team’s history-making journey. It was the first of its kind too – all the tens of thousands of cheerleaders in Australia, who constantly deal with the stigma of cheerleading loved watching something that truly represented what it meant to be a cheerleader and how grueling it can be. Making the documentary and winning bronze were two of the proudest things I’ve done in my life.
At the end of that year, I decided it was time to retire
I’d gotten over most of my fear, won a bronze medal and I was now 38, the oldest cheerleader, probably in Victoria, possibly in Australia. In January, however, I received a text from my coach asking me to come back just one more time for Worlds 2018. I said yes. But this time I was going to get rid of that last remaining 5% of anxiety and fear. I’d read a lot of books on anxiety, listened to podcasts, TED talks, meditated and spoke to many people who’d gone through injury, but the thing that finally tipped it all for me was seeing a psychologist. I walked into my next training the most empowered and fearless I’ve ever felt. At the end of April this year, I competed in my third (and final) World Championships. When I walked onto that performance mat, my head was held high, and my confidence was booming through every pore. The journey definitely wasn’t easy, but like anything, the harder the journey the bigger the reward.