Eric Bestvater did not set out to become a cheerleader, a business owner or a world champion coach within the sport.
“I grew up in a small town playing sports like hockey and football,” said Bestvater, who was raised in Assiniboia and finished high school in Weyburn. “Cheerleading didn’t really exist where I was from and so I looked at it very skeptically, or with kind of a traditional attitude of ‘oh, that’s not really a sport.’”
One fateful practice in 2003 changed all that.
By then attending the University of Regina, Bestvater says he was invited to a cheerleading practice by some female acquaintances who were also members of the school’s cheer team. He had no prior experience in either cheerleading or gymnastics, nor competing in a sport whose competitors are predominantly female, and it was an invitation he initially resisted.
“I finally went almost grudgingly, like ‘Oh sure, fine, I’ll come,” he said.
What he found once he arrived was an inclusiveness that he says immediately made him feel right at home.
“The fact that it’s a largely female-dominated sport, you would maybe think as a male it would be weird but in fact the opposite is true because the athletes and the coaches, they understand that it’s hard to get men involved, and when they’re able to get one they’re very grateful because we bring a different skill set,” said Bestvater. “So I felt very welcome right off the bat.”
That first practice set the stage for countless milestones to come: Among them, a multi-year stint on the Saskatchewan Roughriders cheer team, opening his own business — Rebels Cheerleading Athletics — in 2007, and coaching one Rebels squad to a world championship in 2022.
Twenty years on from his own cheerleading debut, however, Bestvater cites the true highlight of his career as ongoing, and a little less tangible.
“Just the ability to have a hand in shaping so many young lives, and being a role model and teaching life lessons is really what I consider to be the greatest accomplishment of my life so far,” he said. “So many of our athletes have gone on to do bigger and better things and they have a real passion for cheerleading still and they stay in contact.
“Our gym’s motto is to not just create great cheerleaders but create great people too, and we try to teach our athletes to carry qualities like inclusivity and kindness into all areas of their lives, because we’re all in this together.”
Within the Rebels organization that means doing his best to lead by example in ensuring a safe and welcoming environment for all athletes, regardless of ability, experience, age, size, race, sexuality or gender identity.
“There was a group that we worked with for a year and the coach of that group came to me and said we have one athlete who’s non-binary and this is how they prefer to be addressed,” Bestvater recalled. “So we changed the way we addressed our team. Instead of ‘hey girls,’ because that’s not inclusive of their preferences, it was ‘hey team’ or ‘hey everyone.’
“You’re not going to get it right every time and I think that people in that situation generally understand that this is a new thing in society relatively speaking, but the effort is what I find is the most appreciated thing. And that’s what it’s all about. Just be a good person.
“If somebody prefers you call them Bob instead of John, you’re not going to say ‘No, I’m calling you John no matter what you want.’ So why does it matter to you if someone else wants to be called he or she or they?”
Claire Dore echoes that sentiment.
As a member of the 2SLGBTQIA+ community, Dore has experienced the evolution in societal attitudes firsthand over the past 12 years, both as football player and coach. Dore played for the Regina Riot of the Western Women’s Canadian Football League from 2011-17 and now coaches the three-time WWCFL championship squad’s running backs as well as a high school team in Regina.
“We’re always trying different things, new things around inclusivity and acceptance, and they’re not always going to work but the merit is that we’re trying with our genuine hearts and that we’re going to continue to try,” said Dore.
“None of us are going to be perfect. Even myself, if you had told me to call someone they or them even five years ago I would have found that hard. But when people know something is coming from a place of care and love, even when you make a mistake, they’re usually pretty forgiving.”
Dore is also grateful to see progression on a more micro scale within team locker rooms, putting the focus back on sport rather than individuals’ sexual or gender identity.
“There seems to be less and less of an issue on teams and in the locker rooms about who is looking at who and it’s becoming a non-issue,” she continued. “Where one of the first things people used to want to know is ‘What’s your story?’ or ‘Who are you interested in?’, that’s no longer a question. We’ve grown in a way where when we come together for football it’s about football.”
Still, Dore also acknowledges that inclusivity in sport will likely always be a work in progress.
“There is a lot of work being done and research being considered on how we get to those next steps, and there’s a lot to decide on how can we best serve all humans in the sports realm?” she said. “I understand why there’s questions and concerns around mixed-gender sports or non-gendered sports. But I think that’s the next step is figuring out how do we ensure there’s an avenue for all people to play sport, and I think that’s a ways away but I think that’s the next progression.”