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Slicked back ponytails with large glittery bows, metallic poms, daring tosses and swift split jumps. In the background, the whoops and hollers from the crowd drowned out the music while spurring the athletes on.

On Saturday afternoon, the Helena Athletic Club and the Mustangs Cheerleading Booster Club hosted the 10th annual Great Northern Cheer & Dance Championships at the Carroll College PE Center. The event is Montana’s longest running and biggest cheer and dance competition, with over 400 athletes from across the state in attendance.

“This is a good local event that the athletes can use to start their season out on the right foot and help prepare them for bigger competitions,” said Laura Snellman, owner of HAC. “It helps prepare all Montana teams to represent the state in regional competitions.”

The 400-plus athletes ranged from age 4 to adults. Cheer and dance teams, soloists and small groups from all over Montana competed in multiple events. According to Snellman, over 130 Helena athletes competed, and Helena teams included the Capital City Jammers, Northwest WILD and Image Dancing, as well as the Mustangs Cheerleading team and both the Helena High and Capital High cheer teams.

Snellman said this year the Mustangs, who are part of the Helena Athletic Club, had eight seniors participate in the event, which is an especially large group for them. Among those were Capital High School seniors Kaelin McMillan and Sydney Carlson, who both celebrated their 10th year at the event on Saturday.

“It’s really crazy to think about this being my 10th year in the competition,” said McMillan. “The time has gone by so fast.”

“This year’s event is a little emotional for me,” said Carlson. “It’s been such a big part of my life and it’s difficult to cope with the idea of not having it after this year.”

Saturday’s events began at 2 p.m. with a grand march-in of all the teams. Following the parade of athletes, the Mustangs Titanium Cheerleading team gave a short exhibition. The event then quickly transitioned into dance team and high school cheer performances. Many of the teams wore playful costumes that included elements like '80s style, circus characters and Disney princesses to complement their dances.

Among the final performances on Saturday were those involving the high school cheer teams from Park High School in Livingston, Skyview High School in Billings, Glacier High School in Kalispell and both Capital and Helena High schools.

Following the high school cheer performances, a freestyle dance off and “Cheer Olympics” was held. Snellman explained that the Cheer Olympics is an informal contest where athletes test their skills in events. The five high school teams tested their skills and endurance through the longest held extension and liberty while the crowd’s encouraging cheers filled the gymnasium.

Following the Olympic event, awards were given out. Members of Helena’s Capital City Jammers and Image Dancing took home wins in several of the events.

While it was a whirlwind Saturday for the athletes, the competition continues Sunday with the all-star performances.

“The all-star competition really gives the high school athletes especially the opportunity to showcase for themselves,” said Snellman. “They get excited to focus on this for themselves.”

Carlson reflected on how her role in the competition has changed over the decade of her involvement in it.

“I always looked up to the seniors when I was younger — this year it’s us,” said Carlson. It was kinda cool this year to be able to help out the younger athletes with their routines.”

“I’m going to miss it and the younger girls that will carry on the legacy,” said McMillan.

As reigning veterans in not only Saturday’s event but also the sport as a whole, both girls had inspiring words for those athletes just starting their journey.

“Stick with it,” said McMillan. “Once you start out, it’s a very hard sport. But if you stick with it, you will come to love it.”

“Never give up and always believe in yourself,” said Carlson. “Never doubt yourself because you can get through everything. You can be amazing.”

Both Carlson and McMillan hope to continue their cheer careers in college. McMillan shared that she will be cheering for Montana State University next school year in Bozeman and Carlson said she is thinking of trying out for the cheer team at the University of Montana.

The Great Northern Cheer & Dance Championships continue Sunday from noon to 4 p.m. at the Carroll PE Center with the cheerleading all-star competitions and specialty divisions. Admission is $8 for adults and $5 for students, military and seniors.

“By having local events like this that cost less money, it helps to maintain and grow the sport in the state and will help feed athletes into colleges,” said Snellman. “This event gives teams an opportunity to compete locally and in a different capacity. It’s neat for the athletes to get support from the local community.”

“I’ve always enjoyed the local aspect of this event,” said Carlson. “It’s nice having family and friends there and the support the other teams give.”

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