Back in March 2020, as a new semester kicked off at La Trobe, Law/Psychology student and Elite Athlete Caitlin Dagher was preparing to fly to Florida to compete at the International All Star Federation World Cheerleading Championships.
“We nearly made top three in the world,” says Caitlin, “which would have made history for Australia in 2019, but unfortunately we had a small fall and were pushed back to fifth, so we were coming into the 2020 season with a bit of a vengeance.”
Unfortunately, COVID-19 had other plans, and the championships were cancelled, crushing their dreams of redemption. Despite the setback, Caitlin and her team – Southern Cross Lady Reign – continued to train online throughout that year.
Then, along came the 2021 World Championships.
“In July, the International Olympic Committee was like, ‘yeah, cheerleading’s a sport, we’re crediting it’. From there we were able to get an exemption from the government to train…just our team in an empty cold gym in the middle of nowhere. We trained from July all the way up to competing in September.”
They maintained their motivation through to the world championships where their diligence paid off – Lady Reign flipped, balanced, and cartwheeled their way to gold.
Competing virtually and without a live audience cheering them on, it was a complex feat.
“We had a filming app that you had to film through at a certain time…judges from around the world [would] watch that live and judge us, and then awards happened a couple of weeks later…very weird because cheer is a crowd sport and people scream and yell. A lot of the atmosphere is that performance element, so being in a gym where no one else is around is a very bizarre experience.”
A fun way to be involved with the community
For Caitlin, her journey as an international competitive cheerleader began simply as a fun way to make friends. After stopping gymnastics in high school, she tried out for the La Trobe Cheer and Dance Club in her first year of uni, rekindling her love for acrobatics.
“I went to one of the tryouts…everyone was really lovely and it was really cool that I could do a flip. I was like, ‘oh, I don’t know if I’m done doing competitive cheer, I think I want to do something with competition’, which is why I went across to my All Star club. Then in my second year of uni I came back to La Trobe Cheer and Dance because I wanted to be involved more with the uni community.”
Despite her lifelong love of gymnastics, Caitlin insists she never anticipated this pathway.
“Throughout high school, I used to swear I’d never do cheerleading – like, I’m not going to hold a pom pom, I do flips, you know, it’s completely different!”
“In the space of 10 months, I went from making a couple of friends with La Trobe Cheer and Dance to getting my first bid at the World Championship… [it’s] a nice circle. I like to think I gave up on it, then followed my passion and ended up where I wanted to be in the first place…unpredictable but incredible.”
Alongside cheerleading, Caitlin is completing her penultimate year of a Bachelor of Law/Psychological Sciences, with a Diploma of Languages in French. She finds cheerleading a great outlet for the stresses of her degree.
“I’m quite extroverted as a person, so being able to come and do something that takes a lot of teamwork is something that really energises me…I found La Trobe Cheer was a really great release because it was a bit more social, a bit more casual, so it let me remember why I loved my sport.”
“I’ve been in exams the past couple of days and I had an exam yesterday morning, then I had cheer training that night… the best thing for me was that I got to go to cheer, put that [stress] at the door, come in, spend some time with people who have a lot of confidence in me, who enjoy doing things together, and do something that isn’t just studying.”
More than just one thing
Caitlin also finds the skills she’s forged through cheerleading complement her degree; working with cheerleaders of diverse ages and walks of life has helped solidify the importance of teamwork.
“[In] law or even psychology, you are always dealing with people…being able to appreciate that other people have different strengths to me or may work differently to me, but our common goal is the same and we can still pursue that together is something that absolutely I would not have even considered without cheer.”
“Even just the way that we train – in cheerleading we have a two-and-a-half-minute routine where you want to be as close to perfection as possible, so it’s all about refining your skills over a long period of time in a structured way so you’re peaking over competition. I think in the same way when you’re studying for exams…you [want to be] peaking at the end of exams [so] you’re not having to study to burnout to peak then. If I was to try to put my entire routine together a week before I was to compete, I would fail, so in the same way, [I] do little bits as [I] go along.”
Besides transferrable skills, her time with La Trobe Cheer and Dance has led to many transformative opportunities.
“Making friends and connections has been really great. From joining La Trobe Cheer and Dance, I made two really fantastic friends who are also studying law, then we ended up doing an exchange program through La Trobe to Michigan State University together. I would have never done that had I not done cheer with La Trobe.”
A good way to keep grounded
Caitlin credits the La Trobe Elite Athlete program for supporting her through the recent championships, but it was not always the case – until July this year, cheerleading was not formally recognised as a sport, meaning Caitlin’s initial program application during her world championship bid in 2019 was rejected.
Determined to see her sport understood by the university, she took matters into her own hands.
“I ended up going through an appeals process – very law student of me – to get cheer recognised and understood; [it’s] a really competitive high level sport, not the kind of sideline [sport] that people perceive… I actually ended up meeting with the Vice Chancellor and we had a discussion about it, and within a couple of minutes, to his credit, he was like, ‘yeah, this is a sport…let’s reform this program’.”
“I got involved in reforming the program and recentering the aims [so it wasn’t] just as linear [as] you’re accredited or you’re not as a sport, more I guess the accomplishments and the demands of the sport itself.”
Caitlin helped restructure the Elite Athlete Program, which supports student athletes with extensions for assignments, strength and conditioning coaching, as well as access to networks and facilities.
She is grateful for the program ‘keep[ing] her grounded’ through her time at uni and is eager to see it continue to blossom once she graduates.
“I feel really grateful that through that opportunity I was actually heard…universities have a lot of bureaucratic processes…being able to come to the end of it and sit face-to-face with someone who was trying to understand where I was coming from gives me a lot of faith in [not only] La Trobe as a university, but also in the program itself…I hope it can be opened up to anyone who’s performing at a really high level in their given field…hopefully in the future [it] can continue to expand and perhaps bring in people who are in the performing arts industry, and I’m sure training up to the same kind of level in intensity that we are.”
For Caitlin however, her days of training intensely are ending; she hopes to stay involved with La Trobe’s Cheer and Dance Club in a less competitive capacity whilst pursuing a legal career. Nonetheless, she’s grateful for everything cheerleading has brought her, and says the opportunities that have come out of juggling her degree with her sporting career have helped her develop into a multi-faceted person.
“I think often there’s a perception, particularly in law, that being a law student is your whole personality…law is just one component of who I am…being able to get opportunities through friendly people at La Trobe, I’ve been able to become more than just one thing, and I think that is so valuable and something that I’m trying really hard to maintain.”