By David “Dirk” Smith, M.Sc., SDL (He/Him)

Last year I shared about my experiences accompanying members of the Pride Cheerleading Association on the almighty #CheerBus as they traveled to different sports taking place during the Sin City Classic to raise money for the Golden Rainbow. Golden Rainbow is a charity organization that provides housing, education and direct financial assistance to people living with HIV/AIDS in southern Nevada. Whereas the Pride Cheerleading Association is an affiliation of member teams that “raise spirits, awareness, and funds for causes in the LGBTQ+ and beyond.” At the Sin City Classic, the Pride Cheerleading Association organizes two major events, the Cheer Bus on Saturday where a group of PCA athletes, representing different teams around the country, travel to some of the different sport tournaments at the Sin City Classic to perform stunts, cheers and routines while raising money for Golden Rainbow. On Sunday PCA organizes its own competition where the athletes can compete with their teammates in different divisions such Group Stunt (max three athletes) and Partner Stunt (max three athletes) as well as team exhibition routines.

While I had worked with and covered Pride Cheerleading Association many times before, the 2022 Sin City Classic that I wrote about last year was the first time I had spent any significant amount of time with members of the organization itself. As a swimmer, normally I hang out with swimmers, but with no swimming I wasn’t sure what to do but was quickly invited and welcomed into the PCA family. That experience was very special for me, and I know it had a big impact on the athletes who attended as well. With the pandemic still creeping around, PCA only had about 20ish athletes on the #CheerBus to travel to the different sports, cheer, and raise money for Golden Rainbow. Given such a small group and a unified cause, all of us on that bus self-organized into our own little cohesive group, bonded by this shared experience as the athletes started sharing their stories about finding their authentic selves, joining PCA and what being a “Charitable Cheerleader” means to them. I was very grateful to have been there with my video camera to document it all and highlight the experience in my first full episode of my web show, “Sport Psych n’ Stuff”.

As you’ve probably noticed in my writing and coverage of PCA ever since, I have just been gushing about how amazing PCA is and the work they do using cheerleading as a platform to raise money for charity while building a truly inclusive and diverse group of people centered around a common cause. Every PCA member team is filled with athletes who represent all levels of diversity and show that sports, especially cheerleading, can be truly inclusive for everyone. I really buy into their mission and approach because PCA I feel truly represents the power of sports and what it means to be an athlete.

For the 2023 Sin City Classic, I was very happy and excited to have been invited back to join PCA again on the #CheerBus and I quickly realized that this year was going to be much different. The first hint of this was when I asked if I could bring an assistant to help me with my camera equipment and was told there might not be enough room and I quickly learned that this years’ Cheer Bus was easily going to have over 100 cheerleaders! Over 5x as many athletes as there were last year. Oh geez, this is going to be awesome!

The call time for the PCA athletes riding the #CheerBus on Saturday was 8am where they had to choreograph and learn a full 60 second cheer routine in under two hours. Many of these athletes had only just met each other for the first time and were going to be spending the day together performing this routine many times. When I arrived at the ballroom that morning, camera equipment and breakfast in hand, PCA was already hard at work going through the routine. Over 100 athletes learning a 60 second routine in under two hours, that alone is impressive, and we were just getting started. I enjoyed my breakfast while watching the rehearsal and then quickly got to work. This year I brought a Steadicam vest to help make my videography much easier and more mobile this year than I had been last year, so I was eager to start getting footage but before I got much of the rehearsal, it was time to pack up and get on the bus… er busses.

With 100+ athletes, there was no way we could all fit on one bus this year, so PCA rented three busses and even with that, we were barely able to fit. Cheer Portland had the biggest team and along with the other Pacific Northwest Teams, Cheer Tacoma, and Cheer Seattle, rode in Bus #1, the biggest of all the busses. I am told they were jamming out the whole time too! CHEER Salt Lake, CHEER Colorado, and Cheer DC rode in bus #3 while the California teams, Cheer SF, Cheer LA and Cheer Sacramento, along with myself, a few other photographers and Federation of Gay Games and Gay Games 2023 Guadalajara representatives all rode in Bus #2. Last year we made stops at four different sports where I had time to get some interviews, this year we were visiting six different sports and with 5x as many athletes, I quickly realized I would need to wait until Sunday for the interviews.

Our first stop of the day was Dodgeball which was also our only stop at an indoor sport. We arrived at the Las Vegas YMCA just before the tournament got underway, with all the athletes in the gymnasium seated for an opening session that included speeches and some amazing performances by local drag queens. The PCA cheerleaders came into the gym where they were afforded their own court behind a curtain to get ready to perform for the hundreds of dodgeball players. However, the routine they had just learned less than hour prior they were unable to perform since there wasn’t enough space! That didn’t stop PCA though who instead broke it up into smaller performance routines performed by each member team as they were introduced to the roaring applause and cheers of the crowd. The energy in that gymnasium was so high, everybody was excited, and the music was on point. As PCA made their way out, many dodgeballers were dropping money in the spirit buckets but we didn’t have much time to stick around, we had five more sports to visit!

Of course, going to our second sport, Women’s+ Softball, it was our first outdoor location and without the booming walls and immediate audience, it wasn’t quite as energetic; but it was time for PCA to do its thing. They hit the ground running to “bucket” as they call it, soliciting donations, performing stunts and cheers for the athletes. Once PCA spent a few moments wandering the crowd, the softball players started warming up and before long, PCA had a bit of an audience ready for the first routine performance for the day. Despite having just learned it a few hours prior, PCA knocked it out of the park to the applause from the athletes and with a few more donations before getting back on those busses.

Thankfully the next two sports were at the same venue being both flag football and soccer, unfortunately the venue was quite big, and we ended up parked at the opposite end of where we needed to be! So, a bit of a walk to the fields and then we were right where we needed to be! By the time PCA arrived, the athletes already knew we were coming and were ready for a show, so without much time to prepare beforehand, PCA jumped right into the cheer routine for the crowd and then took to bucketing! There were several athletes from flag football who had been former cheerleaders and with some “cheer” pressure, they were invited for some cheering and stunting fun with some of the PCA athletes! The soccer tournament was especially important as we were able to meet and cheer for some of the athletes preparing for the USA’s first ever all trans/nonbinary soccer match that was taking place shortly thereafter. Unfortunately, PCA couldn’t stick around for the match as we still had to hit lunch and two more sports!

This year PCA provided pizza for all of us on the cheer bus, and after four sports of bucketing, cheering, stunting, and performing (as well as the rest of us tagalongs), a tasty pizza lunch was exactly what we needed! After lunch, just was the food coma was setting in, we arrived at the last stop of the day, home to both kickball and open softball.

The plan here was we had to walk through the open softball to get to kickball, then double back around and perform for softball. Walking through the softball generated some buzz as the softball players started cheering the cheerleaders! Even dropping money in the buckets as we made our way to kickball which proved to be the most challenging venue. It had started to rain, the kickball area had concrete and a wire grid suspended just above the pedestrian area between the fields. Despite these constraints, PCA went out and showed off what they could do for an enthusiastic crowd and even got a few extra stunts in. Finally making our way back to the open softball, they were ready for us. Many of the athletes were quick to join in on some of the cheers and try out stunting with PCA members and overall, really engaging with the crowd to the delight of all. The energy was hitting almost the same level as it did during dodgeball as, despite the rain, everybody was just having a blast.

The day flew by so quickly and before we knew it, it was time to head back to the hotel! The final mood of the drive home was a mixture of elation and exhaustion as we finally had a chance to let the experience of the day process and count the money that PCA raised which, has yet to still be announced.

This years’ #CheerBus was a vastly difference experience than it was in 2022, but it was as equally as powerful and rewarding. Following up with some of the athletes on the day after to learn more about their stories and experiences during the day added so much more to what we all experienced on that day and what it means to every person who took part.

With hours of footage and interviews in my camera’s memory cards, I can’t wait to share with you more about how amazing the day was.

Photo Credit: David “Dirk” Smith and Jessica Hamilton