(March 2020) – David Lee Tracey makes no bones about being a jock.
At 60 years of age, “Trace” is the strong, silent type, frequently sitting quietly at Village Square Coffee House – a big fellow, wearing a Stetson hat.
He is a huge sports fan. The Port Stanley resident hasn’t missed a Western Mustangs football home game since 1977. He rides a Harley. His dog Sir Magnus Nashville Colt is named in part to commemorate the Western Mustangs.
Trace grew up playing football, as well as basketball and track and field. He comes from an athletic family. His mother Kit Sage was a Western basketball and tennis standout. His father Ron Tracey was a Western football and basketball star. His sister Jill excelled in track and field at Western.
All that is to say … Trace’s persona betrays his 40 years as a cheerleading coach, or at least general perceptions about his choice of career.
“Oddball” may be the kindest name some people have called him. “I still get that,” he said in a recent interview at his gym. Power Cheer Gym, at 580 Quebec Street, in London, is the largest dedicated cheerleading gym in Southwestern Ontario. “People say, ‘you’ve been a life-long cheerleader’, but I just think of myself as a jock. I recruit athletes, not cheerleaders. I just say I’m a coach and leave it at that.”
The Grand Canyon Road resident is head coach of Western Mustangs cheerleading, the longest running collegiate program in Canada, and coach of Cheer Canada, the national cheerleading program.
Trace has coached more than 3,000 cheerleaders in his career and entering the 2018-2019 season, Mustangs cheerleading squads had won an unprecedented 32 National Co-Ed Cheerleading Championships. That’s all but one of the National Championships since its inception in 1985. He also led Cheer Canada to a silver medal in 2018.
“It’s always been tied to football,” said Trace. “That’s what drives me and keeps me in it. It gets me into all the games for free too,” he adds with a broad grin.
Born in Ancaster, Trace grew up in Milton, where he went to high school and cut his teeth on sports. To his surprise, Trace didn’t make the Western football team, so instead, threw himself at his studies. “I loved school, I loved reading, I loved research, everything about it.” He graduated after a four-year kinesiology program, then continued in school another five years to get his Biophysics Masters. Also in that period, Trace joined the Western cross-country ski team, but started running with a cheerleading crowd when a season of no snow steered him off the trails.
Cheerleading at Western started as an all-male activity in 1929, with “Doc Thompson and his Rollicking Rooters” at football games. Doris Eagles was the first woman to join in 1939 and by the 1950s it became a co-ed squad.
Today, cheerleading is a dynamic symbol of Western University’s culture. Typically accompanied by the school’s marching band, cheerleading not only raises the spirits of Western sports fans, it has also become an integral part of homecoming, parades and orientation. “I love school traditions,” said Trace, adding that his cheerleaders sing the Western School Song after every Mustangs touch down.
Cheerleading is a predominantly American activity, with an estimated 1.5 million participants in the U.S. According to Wikipedia, students in England started cheering and chanting in unison at sports events in the 1860s and that enthusiasm spread to America. On November 6, 1869, at an intercollegiate football game, student fans cheered and shouted “Sis Boom Rah!” for the first time. It became a global phenomenon after ESPN’s 1997 broadcast of an international cheerleading competition. The release of the film Bring it On in 2000 added fueled to the fire. There are now an estimated 100,000 participants outside the U.S., in countries like Canada, Australia, China, Colombia, Finland, France, Germany, Japan, the Netherlands, New Zealand and England.
Trace took over the Western cheerleading team in 1980 and started a revolution of sorts. “I didn’t like that cheerleading was so goofy, so I took it upon myself to change it. I wanted it to be perceived as athletic and difficult, not just rah-rah and pom-poms.” He took his team to U.S. training camps and soon the pyramids and hoists of early cheerleading routines evolved into complicated throws and gymnastics. “We modelled out stuff after what was going on down there. I like the tricks and the flips.” In 1988, he formed Power Cheerleading Athletics and started sharing the knowledge gained in the U.S. He later opened his own gym, home of five Vipers cheerleading squads.
Trace’s most popular “trick” is known as the Western Helicopter. Check it out at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5JbTOc9AXY . It’s an impressive acrobatic performance: five or six people on the ground, spinning and throwing three other athletes, in skydiver formation, up to 15 feet in the air. “You have to have that show-off gene in you,” said Trace. “I want the kids to get that buzz, that feedback thing from the crowd.”
Western has a 35-member co-ed cheerleading squad, as well as a 38-member, all-women team. Many of Trace’s recruits are gymnasts and figure skaters, as well as volleyball, hockey and rugby players. “Our job is to connect the play on the field with the people in the stands,” he said. “Flips and spins are used to get into the spectators’ sightline, not to interfere in watching the game, but to enhance the experience. You don’t go to a football game to cheer, you go to watch football.”
Children start cheerleading in Ontario at age four years, and they can advance through Ontario Cheerleading Federation ranks until they’re 18 years old. Competition includes events in eight cities across Ontario. The nationals are held in April, in Niagara, and the worlds in April, in Orlando.
Trace considers his greatest accomplishments are the 11 Western alumni who have gone on from his program to open their own gym. “The highlights are never the winning. They’re wonderful, but to me it’s watching the joy of the athletes. I hope I’m passing on that enthusiasm. To me, that’s success.”