Ed (left) and fellow coaches practise a stunt.
It’s hard to say just when engineering will come into play. Take the Saturday morning in 1990 when Ed Mah, P.Eng. accompanied his wife Ann, a teacher, while she coached cheerleading at an Edmonton junior high school. Ed, who knew little about cheerleading, was mainly there to babysit his son, Justin, while Ann led team routines.
Ed felt the cheers and the choreography had the right chemistry. However, the University of Alberta civil engineering graduate, then working in project management with the PCL Group, felt something was missing in terms of engineering and physics. Bent limbs, particularly arms, led to poor alignments and improper weight-bearing by the human columns the cheerleaders formed in performing their “stunts.” Inefficient and jerky movement meant the team didn’t take full advantage of available momentum during lifts.
Ed participated in that Saturday practice and literally helped straighten things out. With the application of some basic engineering principles, improvement was almost instant. That was the start of Ed becoming the stunt coach. Along with help from dance and cheer coaches, the Highlands Junior High “Hurricane” cheer teams captured provincial titles in their categories and repeated the feat for two years.
It created a buzz in the cheerleading community — no mean feat given Edmonton is somewhat of a cheerleading hotbed in Western Canada. Other schools invited Ed in as a consultant. Soon he became the junior high school director of the Alberta Cheerleading Association, which governs and sets standards (based on ages and abilities). It also has a key role in ensuring safe performance.
“[Cheerleading] stunts and formations can be shaky and there can be lots of serious injuries if mounting and dismount techniques are not taught properly,” says Mah. Sometimes coaches and cheerleaders may want to push stunts too far to impress judges, who award points much as in figure skating or diving.
Mah sees his role of ensuring the safety of the cheerleaders’ human structures as an extension of his professional commitment to certify that steel or concrete structures are secure. So he set out to improve the cheerleading association’s safety standards and guidelines. Some of those safety recommendations spread further afield when Mah and Edmonton teams travelled to other cheer camps in Canada and to the U.S. National Cheerleading Association events, which are held as far away as Portland, Oregon.
Mah believes strongly in the value of cheerleading in building body and character. Competitive cheerleading is not just “cutesy ” or lightweight stuff but demands athletics, coordination and discipline, as portrayed in movies such as Bring It On.
“It’s definitely a sport,” Mah insists. Not only must champion cheerleaders be good athletes, but also they need to be good students and effective time managers to fit in practice and competition. And besides cheering on the other school sport teams, cheer teams themselves compete from January through March. With summer camps, that makes for a long season.
Demands of his day job have forced Mah to ease up in recent years on his cheerleading involvement. He has worked for Stantec Consulting in urban land-development for five years. Amid Alberta’s frenetic building boom, Mah oversees certifications for 5,000 or more Edmonton lots a year.
Many of the people Mah helped now are cheerleading coaches applying the engineering principles he taught them years ago. A number stay in touch and share their achievements through e-mails, notes or in person. Ed’s wife still coaches and their daughter Breanna, 11, is entering the sport of cheerleading and attended her first camp this summer.
Nordahl Flakstad is a freelance writer based in Edmonton.