How Finland became a cheerleading powerhouse 

Rosanna Toivonen speaks of raising the sport's profile as Finland prepare to defend their All Girl Premier title at the World Cheerleading Championships.

What do you think of when it comes to Finland and sport?

Javelin throwers, long-distance runners, ice hockey players, ski jumpers, motor racing drivers perhaps?

Cheerleading would probably not make your list.

But there is a new breed of 'Flying Finns' with the North European country challenging for the women's world title over the last decade.

And in 2018, they ended the dominance of the United States by taking gold in the top category - the All Girl Premier - for the first time.

Ahead of their title defence in Orlando, Florida, Olympic Channel caught up with Finnish team member Rosanna Toivonen.

The 2019 World Cheerleading Championships take place from 24-26 April with the final day streamed live on Olympic Channel.

Olympic Channel: Hi Rosanna. Cheerleading and Finland seem like an unusual mix. How did you get involved in cheerleading?

Rosanna Toivonen: I did all sorts of sports when I was young - football, basketball, dancing and horse riding. When I was eight, there was a girl in Helsinki doing cheerleading and I saw clips of her routine. I thought, "This is dangerous. There's no way I'll ever do this!" A few years later, my older sister started and I thought it looked fun so I gave it a try and I'm still doing it.

I loved basketball but I found the training boring. Nothing grabbed me like cheerleading. When I started aged 11, I always felt I could learn more and get better at every practice - tumbling, stunts, baskets, cheer. And I'm still learning 15 years later.

OC: And now?

RT: I'm 25 years old. I've always lived in Helsinki before moving to Vaasa last year to study. My club team won the Finnish national championships in 2012, 2013 and 2015 to go to the World Championships.

Work, studying, it's all second to cheerleading. It's my passion, it's something I love to do, and it has given me so much - titles, friends, everything.

OC: You've had to do a bit of juggling between studying and cheerleading ahead of this year's World Championships...

RT: I thought last year would be my last Worlds as I wanted to go to university. I've always been intrigued by social media and how it works so I started to explore options and how I could work in social media or marketing. I decided on communications and got into Vaasa University where I wanted to go.

But after we won, I couldn't let cheerleading go and wanted to do it again. So I decided I would try out for the national team despite moving away from Helsinki. I got in and, once I made it, the team decided they'd train on weekends so I was travelling from Vaasa to Helsinki every weekend for practice. But before the winter, I decided I needed to focus fully on cheerleading so I moved back to Helsinki while taking online classes.

Finnish cheer squad member Rosanna Toivonen (Photo courtesy of Action Moments USA)
Finnish cheer squad member Rosanna Toivonen (Photo courtesy of Action Moments USA)Finnish cheer squad member Rosanna Toivonen (Photo courtesy of Action Moments USA)

OC: That sounds like a lot of balancing. What's been a typical day for you ahead of these Worlds?

RT: I wake up at eight o'clock and study at home. Depending on the day, I go to the gym in the morning or in the daytime. And then I go for a stunt practice and coaching session at the gym.

OC: So do you get time for anything else?

RT: When I'm not cheerleading, I hang out with my friends, read books. I'm really passionate about travelling, and I love animals. I have two cats and I've volunteered in a cat shelter and things like that.

OC: Any good books recently?

RT: Not at the moment because it's only sports and school books right now.

Finland's All Girl Premier squad in practice
Finland's All Girl Premier squad in practiceFinland's All Girl Premier squad in practice

"This is dangerous. There's no way I'll ever do this!"

OC: What's your role within Team Finland?

RT: With stunts, baskets and pyramids, I'm a base. In tumbling parts, the whole team is doing tumbling so there are no different roles, just different difficulty levels.

OC: What did last year's victory mean to you?

RT: We set the goal to win the Worlds back in 2012 when we first went as a club team. Before that, we won a silver in 2009.

With the club team we took bronze four years in the row. 2016 was the first year we started combining the best athletes across Finland into the national team and we got silver. That was the first time we really felt we could win the Worlds. We were excited and had the desire to win more.

In 2017, we were first after the opening day but after day two we finished second. That was heartbreaking because after so many years of training and trying to win, Team USA still beat Team Finland.

We were devastated but we said, "That's it. We will win in 2018." Winning doesn't happen in the competition. Winning happens outside and before the competition. So Finland decided they were going to win. The project started in August 2017 over seven camps and personal training.

Last year, everything was culminating in victory for the team. Because on both days, we could feel the energy and the crowd wanting us to win. It was the best feeling ever to go on the mat and perform in the way we did. After day two, all of Team Germany (second category All Girl Elite winners) were on their feet. Then it was up to the judges, and we won.

(see Finland take All Girl Premier victory below from 12:20 onwards)

"Winning doesn't happen in the competition. Winning happens outside and before the competition."

OC: What was it like to receive that recognition from your fellow competitors and the crowd?

RT: Respect from competitors and peers, that's everything. That's the biggest thing you can accomplish. Also in the cheerleading world, what's great is when you see someone who's doing well - no matter what country they're from or whether they're a big rival in the same division - people are giving recognition and applause to keep going and doing it.

The cheerleading world is very unified when it comes to support. It's not something I've experienced in any other sport. And back in Finland, it's one of the most important things that drives us and gives us the power to move forward.

OC: What has that victory done for cheerleading in Finland?

RT: The public really noticed it. For the first time there was a big two-page article about the cheerleading team and our success. There were interviews on TV and radio and our coach was invited to a big reception and party hosted by the president alongside other Finnish celebrities and politicians.

The European Championships were held in Finland which was also a big deal. Last year, we had an increase of 20 percent from 10,000 athletes to 12,000 athletes. I think it's one of the fastest-growing sports in Finland because it can be done on so many levels. The oldest athletes are around 60 years old. It doesn't matter how old or young you are, you can do cheerleading on your own level.

We recently did a showcase routine ahead of the Worlds and the crowd went crazy. They were cheering loudly and they wanted us to be great.

Finland victory shows rise of Nordic cheer

Finland victory shows rise of Nordic cheer

OC: Is there extra pressure on you now as defending champions?

RT: We're honoured that people think we have pressure. Before 2017 and 2018, you could have said Finland had almost won so they had pressure. But in every case, the pressure comes from the outside, not from on the team. We just decided that this is our goal and we want to win. We have just focused on what we do, how we practise and how we build our routine because we can't predict the outcome. We just do everything we can the best we can before the competition.

"I remember in the live stream from last year's Worlds, the commentator saying, 'They seem loose and relaxed.' That's the thing - we're relaxed and loose because we trust in each other and what we do."

OC: Where would you like to see Finnish cheerleading go from here?

RT: We want to take cheerleading as a whole to a serious sports level. Up to this point, cheerleading in Finland has been seen as more of a hobby. We went it to be something that can be done professionally in the next 10 to 20 years. We need to start working on that now.

One example to follow is the Finland women's ice hockey team. They've just gone professional and this month reached the final of the World Championships. That was great to see and we want to take that to cheerleading.

Finland take All Girl Premier victory at the 2018 World Cheerleading Championships (Photo courtesy of Action Moments USA)
Finland take All Girl Premier victory at the 2018 World Cheerleading Championships (Photo courtesy of Action Moments USA)Finland take All Girl Premier victory at the 2018 World Cheerleading Championships (Photo courtesy of Action Moments USA)

"We want to empower women's sport in general. We want to be bold and unapologetic for what we do."

If you don't know anything about the sport, you can still enjoy watching it. We want to be world champions and not many athletes in Finland would say they go to competitions to win.

We want to set an example on how to address yourself and your team and be better and win as a team or an individual athlete. Winning happens in training and not just in competitions.

OC: Why should we watch the World Cheerleading Championships?

RT: You can see a lot of emotion, enthusiasm, positivity. Technical difficulty and skills. People flying in the air. Stuff you've never seen before.

You can see women, you can see men, para cheer and disability teams. You can see diversity and cheerleading in all of its forms.

A reminder that you can catch the final day of action from the 2019 World Cheerleading Championships live on Olympic Channel.

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