Marking 40 years of being a ‘little bit rah-rah’

Paul Mayne // Western News

David Lee Tracey, Western Mustang Cheerleaders Coach, is entering his 40th year with a squad still motivating fans and winning championships across North America nearly a century after its founding.

With a smile showing beneath the brim of his trademarked Stetson hat, David Lee Tracey will tell you that he has been cheering for Western for a “freakishly long” time – and there is nothing wrong with that.

“It’s OK to say, ‘Hey, we love our school! Purple and White! Go ’Stangs!’ It’s OK to be a little bit rah-rah – a lot of rah-rah.”

Entering his 40th year with the Western Mustang Cheerleaders, Tracey – known to most simply as ‘Trace’ – has become synonymous with a squad still motivating fans and winning championships across North America nearly a century after its founding.

Even his dog’s name – Sir Magnus Nashville Colt – is an homage to the school: Magnus, for the dog’s size; Nashville, where the squad’s annual training camp takes place; and Colt, as in baby Mustang.

As September rolls around again, the Cheer Western Coach has already gone through the familiar routine of honing his pre-season squad during two-a-day training sessions. They’ve perfected routines and are already rousing the crowds at football games and introducing themselves to incoming students at various OWeek events.

That introduction to the squad, the JP Metras Sports Museum inductee hopes, reinforces to students that school spirit is a good thing, even a great thing.

Tracey, BA’81, is a Physical Education graduate, which he said helps him understand the biomechanics taking place even during cheerleaders’ most difficult manoeuvers.

Fewer than half of the squad of about 35 arrive with cheerleading backgrounds. Instead, many are ex-gymnasts, figure skaters, volleyballers and hockey and rugby players.

In the 1980s, cheerleading was more of a social club, he recalled, and routines were more static.

During his tenure, Tracey transformed it into a co-ed, coach-led squad (previously, senior students led the team) with an emphasis on athleticism. The pyramids and hoists of earlier years evolved into ever-more-complicated throws and gymnastics as the cheerleaders began competing, and winning, nationally and internationally.

“We like to win stuff. We’re really good at it,” he said of the team that has won 32 Canadian cheerleading championships and about a dozen American cheerleading championships.

Asked to name some of his biggest highlights, however, he doesn’t point to a cheerleading championship, but a Western football win.

It was the Vanier Cup in November 1989. The new SkyDome (now the Rogers Centre) in Toronto was packed with more than 32,000 fans, the most ever for a Vanier Cup. Western was pitted against University of Saskatchewan Huskies for the national championship.

The partisan crowd was loud; the band was brilliant; the cheerleaders were on their game; the football was superb. Western won 35-10.

“All the components fell into the right place,” said Tracey, who is also the national cheerleading coach and owner of Power Cheerleading Athletics in London.

Tracey is also unofficial keeper of Western squad’s history, from the first team in 1924 – an all-male ‘yell team’ – to Western’s first woman cheerleader, Doris Eagles in 1939.

Today’s team is supported, in part, by Western and a number of local businesses that help offset the cost of things such as uniforms, half-time meals and travel.

As much as cheerleading has changed through the years, its basic purpose has stayed the same, Tracey said. Get fans into the spirit of the game. “All the tricks are intended to get (the fans’) attention and then to have a common voice.”

Tracey isn’t sure how this milestone year crept up on him so quickly. “First it’s one season, then suddenly it’s five and 10 and 20 and then it’s 40.”

He still has the enthusiasm that first made him synonymous with Western cheerleading, so he’s not ready to hang up his hat just yet. He is still pumped by the fresh start of each school year, the excitement of the games, the marching band and Western’s sports traditions.

“It’s an easy environment to love.”