LODZ – When Mikayla Raleigh was eight years old, her coaches were mad at her because she wasn’t paying attention during training. Just to be clear though, they weren’t her Cheerleading coaches.
“I would watch the cheerleaders all the time while in gymnastics class and I’d get in trouble for that,” the 23-year-old master’s student tells FISU at the World University Cheerleading Championship in Lodz, Poland. “So, I just switched to Cheerleading.”
What she found there was a mix of things like acrobatics, stunting and tumbling – in addition to, of course, cheering.
In hindsight, it turned out to be the right decision for Raleigh, who after 15 years of training and cheering became a Premier Large Coed World University Champ with Team USA this past Saturday. Quite possibly, a side-effect of her dedication to Cheerleading and academics, is that her coaches aren’t mad at her anymore.
Frankly, it’s quite the contrary now. When asked about one standout athlete of his squad during the Championship in Lodz (even though it’s a team sport), USA Coed head coach LeRoy McCullough pointed at Raleigh, after some careful thought. It’s easy to see why.
“I think they know that I put a big emphasis on school,” says Raleigh. “I think that my focus on being a student-athlete is one of my strengths and school is very important to me.”
“Cheerleading is fun,” she adds. “Cheerleading is now and there are careers in cheerleading, but a strong academic background is what’s ultimately going to make you successful.”
That’s the philosophy Mikayla Raleigh has been pursuing her whole academic life. After graduating from North Carolina State University, she is currently getting her master’s degree at Oklahoma State University.
From the way Raleigh talks about tumbling, you can tell straight away that she’s studying exercise science.
“While flipping you’re just using every single muscle in your body for the whole entire routine. It requires you to be dynamic – the fast twitch and explosion. The amount of core strength required for the tricks is just crazy,” she explains.
The subject fits well with her life as a student-athlete, since her focus is studying the kinesiology and the science behind exercise and what people can do to make training more efficient.
“One of my goals is to make a positive impact on the collegiate strength and conditioning model for cheerleaders,” says Raleigh, who coincidentally happens to be from a town in North Carolina called Raleigh. She wants to write her thesis on what universities are currently doing to train cheerleaders and how they can improve to ensure all athletes are healthy and as performance-focused as can possibly be.
Celebrating gold: Raleigh (second from right) and her USA Cheer Premier Large Coed teammates
“The way exercise science applies to Cheerleading, it proves our sport is an athletic endeavour and that we are athletes,” Raleigh says, in response to what she believes are some old-school stereotypes that still exist. “Cheerleading is breaking through those barriers. I think the best way to oppose any cliché is to be a shining example of what you want people to see the sport as. I treat myself well through my training and my nutrition, so people can see a me as a positive athletic lifestyle role model.”
Mikayla Raleigh and Team USA were in their element during the Championship in Lodz, but Raleigh believes every team has its strengths.
“Japan for example, is so good at spinning and we can learn from them,” she says. “I think every single country is stepping up their game and they’re getting more and more competitive with us.”
Raleigh believes this is what’s going to make Cheerleading more universal and more respected in the long run.