How cheerleading saved my life

May 25, 2022

Kerrie in cheerleader action – photo provided by Kerrie from her student union with adjustments by Exposure

Kerrie Portman recounts how she was transformed by a world of cheer

When I was a child, I remember being told by my social worker that my way out of poverty was to go to university. It was hard getting in, as my parents didn’t consistently enrol me in school and I have autism and learning difficulties.

I did get into university, with two scholarships, which brought me to tears because it was the first time I felt people believed in me, and believed in me enough to invest money into my success.

I struggled to make friends in my classes but I joined the cheerleading team in my first couple of weeks. It was something I’d always wanted to try after seeing it on TV and I knew myself well enough to know joining a group focused around a specific activity was the easiest way to socialise. The cheerleading team was the first time I ever made friends. The cheer mat quickly became my safe haven.

Before my first academic year ended, the infamous March 2020 lockdown hit and everything ended too soon, too sudden. It was right before we were scheduled to have our first cheerleading competition and we didn’t even get a chance to say goodbye properly.

All my technology was taken very suddenly and, in a global pandemic and lockdown, I was utterly unable to continue studying

I didn’t get along with online learning and didn’t have any support from social services about the pandemic. I quit university when I heard that the next year would be similar and then cried because I felt like a failure and re-enrolled, doing online learning and online cheer but I wasn’t happy and I didn’t think I was learning anything.

A year ago, in early April 2021, all my technology was taken very suddenly and, in a global pandemic and lockdown, I was utterly unable to continue studying or even tell anybody. That was really traumatic. I became homeless shortly afterwards, which was when I enrolled at college for something to keep me occupied. I applied to UCAS again but I only felt apathy towards the concept of going back to uni, scared by what happened last time.

On Thursday, 23rd September 2021, due to issues I’d been having with my childhood social worker, I decided to take my own life. I didn’t. The day went a little better than I feared and that little bit gave me something to cling to.

Cheerleading on a good team is not just a sport. It’s a community.

Two weeks later I rejoined the university’s cheerleading team as an alumna. I don’t remember now how I found out it was possible but I started going again and we would practise every Thursday.

At first, it was surreal being back in the gym. I remembered it as a safe space but I also remembered it being ripped from us without warning and me being haunted by the last time I was there. It was surreal being with the people I’d only seen online for the past year and a half. But the cheer mat and friends quickly returned to being the safe supportive place I needed. When I became homeless again, it was easier to deal with and I think the cheer team was a big part of that.

It wasn’t just the structure, physical activity and a goal to work towards but having a common purpose, people celebrating my achievements and me celebrating theirs. It was the recognition of hard work, the support and friendship of a team and being surrounded by people who cared about me and were kind. And those are all things that I carried within me, off the mat, filling the space previously filled by people’s hatred. Cheerleading on a good team is not just a sport. It’s a community.

I’m now facing a lot of difficult decisions about university, but this time I have my coaches and cheer friends to ask for advice

Though I didn’t speak of exactly what I was struggling with outside, being a part of that team helped me regain my confidence, my idea that I was worth more than being abused; my ability to try and to improve and have resilience. I had people to talk to when I was struggling. It helped remind me who I was and grow into someone better.

This year we managed to compete at all three competitions of our season, support the other university teams in varsity, perform at their half-time show and finish the season off right. It felt like closure and being at ease.

On the coach, on our way home from our final competition in Wales, I knew that cheer had literally saved my life. I’m now facing a lot of difficult decisions about university, but this time I have my coaches and cheer friends to ask for advice. I’ve known for years that joining that cheerleading team was one of the best decisions of my life, but so was rejoining.

Kerrie is an autistic care leaver, her love of writing originating from the desire to raise awareness of discriminatory practices in social care. This led to her main writing accomplishments, including two published articles in The Guardian and co-authoring a chapter of the book: ‘COVID-19 and Co-production in Health and Social Care Research, Policy, and Practice, Volume 2: Co-production Methods and Working Together at a Distance’. As Kerrie’s love of writing grew, it expanded to most topics and she has also guest-written articles for Ambitious About Autism, National Student Pride, iReader, Heroica, Wearewriteous and North Hertfordshire Pride.

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