Seen by most only on the sidelines of Richardson Stadium, Queen’s varsity cheerleading team has quietly risen to become one of the nation’s top cheer squads.
The team is made up of recruits from diverse background. Some are former cheerleaders, while others are newbies.
One of the most important members of the team is team captain Liz Di Sebastiano. The former high school cheerleader already had her heart set on Queen’s. Once she learned there was a competitive cheerleading team, she knew she made the right choice.
Part of the team’s weekly schedule incorporates going to varsity sports home games. While cheerleading on the sidelines is a special experience, Di Sebastiano said the competitive side got her into cheerleading.
“I didn’t do football games growing up,” she said. “I just did competitions, so it is definitely something that I am better at.”
As a captain now, Di Sebastiano’s role is to help rookies feel welcome.
“There are a lot of the guys that we take that have never done cheerleading before, they just see it as fun to do,” she said. “I have to show them … what is expected from cheerleading, because we are such a competitive team.”
Fifth-year Callum Schjerning is one of the student-athletes who joined the team with no cheerleading background. Coming from a football career, he hoped to play for the Gaels one day. That would all change during Frosh Week.
“I was just wandering through the Sidewalk Sale in my first year and they asked me to come over and do a stunt,” he said. “After that I went to the try out and have been on the team for five years since.”
Despite the physical stress cheerleading puts on the athletes’ bodies, Schjerning knew that his friends and many others looked down on the sport, often saying “they aren’t really athletes because they are just jumping around and yelling things.”
That all changed once they saw it for themselves.
“After your friends see the stuff you do and the stunts that you do and they become pretty impressed, and I think that the stigma goes away pretty quickly.”
Before joining, Schjerning himself didn’t think the sport would put a physical toll on his body. But throughout his five years, he has been through a lot.
“I played football for seven years and I never got injured,” he said, “I joined the cheerleading team and I’ve managed to break my hand, my nose and tear my shoulder, so it’s a lot more physical than you would think.”
Despite painful moments, Schjerning knows that it’s worth it to put on a good show.
“You grit your teeth and pretend that that’s a smile,” he said. “You just got to bear through it.”
One of the team’s greatest strengths is its large alumni network, according to Di Sebastiano. Despite having graduated from the cheering team, they find a way to contribute.
“Last year, we had 20 people leave, so every Homecoming we get tons of support not only from the fans, but from our alumni as well,” Di Sebastiano said. “They come out to all of our competitions.
Anywhere from 30 to 100 show up to our events.”
For Di Sebastiano, one of her fondest memory was during Homecoming in 2013.
“That was the first time we had Homecoming back, so we had an insane number of people in the stands, the alumni were back. It was a really nice feeling to perform in front of them.”
“Normally you can see that there are gaps between the stands for people to walk through, but on that day they were completely filled by a whole block of people. There was just an amazing energy.”
This year, the team is determined to build off of their successful 2014-15 campaign. In their first competition of the year, they finished second at the Power Cheerleading Association Nationals — one of the nation’s top cheer events. They return to the event this December, looking to build off last year’s strong finish.
In their second and final competition of the year, the Gaels dominated in front of the hometown fans at the
K-Rock Centre at the Canadian Cheer Evolution Big East Blast.
The Gaels finished first, perfectly combining their stunting, cheers and dancing.
For former Queen’s cheerleader and current head coach Kevin Pat Fong, this success has been a long time coming.
Pat Fong’s cheerleading journey didn’t start at Queen’s, but rather when he was an undergrad student at Simon Fraser University.
After hearing about the pedigree of the Gaels’ cheerleading program from an alumnus, Pat Fong decided to pursue his PhD in French Studies at Queen’s. The major selling point was his predecessor, head coach Sandy Han.
“A major reason why I came to Queen’s was also to get the chance to be coached by her,” he said.
When Pat Fong took over as the team’s head coach, he said he was afraid that he wouldn’t live up to Sandy Han’s precedent.
“But after years and years of putting effort into it I’m slowly molding it to my image. It feels more at home now,” he said.
Han has been the most influential member in the program’s history. During her 18-year reign as the head coach, Han brought the team from the shadows of club activities to national prominence, eventually earning varsity club status by Queen’s Athletics. In 2008 the team reached new height heights, winning the National Cheer Championships. Prior to this win, Western had won every title dating back to 1985.From his time as a student-athlete under Han, Pat Fong has adopted a few of her coaching techniques.
Typically the team practices off campus two times a week at the Kingston Elite Cheerleading Club, which is run by the former coach. Combine this with practice and weightlifting and the cheerleading team has become one of the most physically demanding sports on campus.
“I think it is very important to understand the culture of Queen’s,” Pat Fong said. “People often ask us if we enjoy cheering a game, especially when it’s raining,cold or when we are losing.”
“It’s a pride [thing]. It’s an honour to go out there and cheer for Queen’s. So as a coach, I’ve used those feelings I had as an athlete to motivate the ones I coach now.”
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