Mermaid Kati to take on the World

Meet Kati Manning, the Cronulla Sharks Mermaids cheerleader who will become the NRL's newest international export when she joins the Denver Nuggets Dancers.

On Sunday, Manning – a Sharks Mermaid of three years – will fly to the United States to start pre-season training as part of the official dance team for the Denver Nuggets in the National Basketball Association (NBA).

Her selection in the squad is no mean feat. One hundred dancers tried out for the initial audition held earlier this month, with only 33 advancing to the next stage after an intense week-long process. Just 18 women made the elite final cut.

After dancing professionally in the NRL for eight years – with a five-year tenure at the Penrith Panthers before the Sharks – Manning was inspired to test herself further.

The seeds for a new challenge were planted in 2017, when she represented the Sharks at a dance convention in Phoenix alongside Mermaids choreographer, Jacqueline-Lee Elliott.

"While I was there, I got to dance with many NBA and NFL (National Football League) dance professionals. I just loved that I was around such professionalism within America," Manning explained.

"And I was doing great, I was keeping up. I was even excelling – I surprised myself in many classes.

"I took the class of the Nuggets' [dance] coach, Amy Jo Wagner, at the convention ... I enjoyed the way she taught, I thought she had great energy.

"She somewhat reminded me of Jacquie – and obviously I love Jacquie as a coach ... I thought 'this is going to work well'."

And so, after researching the Nuggets organisation thoroughly and taking a trip to Denver where she "fell in love" with the area, Manning successfully auditioned for the squad a few weeks ago. She now cannot wait to experience the fanfare of the NBA first-hand.

The impending move to America is incredibly exciting for Manning, but it also brings down the curtain on her Mermaids career for now. However, she regards cheerleading in the NRL as a childhood dream come true.

"I wanted to become a Mermaid and just a cheerleader for the NRL from a very, very young age.

"I would go to the football with my dad and sit there and watch the football and enjoy it because I love the NRL, but I would, of course, watch the [cheerleaders] as well because I'd been dancing since three years old.

"I just loved that they got to entertain the crowd and be there to watch the football. I said to my dad, 'I want to be one of those girls when I'm old enough – I'm going to be a cheerleader'."

Unsurprisingly, there is one highlight of Manning's time as a Mermaid that stands out above the rest – performing on the night the Sharks beat Melbourne to claim their maiden premiership at ANZ Stadium in 2016.

"I cried three times that day, just because I was so happy. First of all, I was proud of the boys for making it. I love the NRL as much as I love dancing, and I was so proud of the Sharks for making the grand final," said Manning.

"I was emotional right when they were running out of the tunnel. We were standing on the sidelines cheering them on, and I was just like, 'yes, we've done it! You've done it, boys!' That was definitely the first moment I cried.

"I also cried when I was dancing, just because I was like, 'oh my god, this is the grand final!'. Dancing at the grand final was one of my dreams during my NRL cheerleading career.

"The fact that one of my dreams had literally come true was just exhilarating. And then I cried when they won!"

Manning is one of many exceptionally talented NRL cheerleaders. She believes they don't get the credit deserved for the countless hours of unseen hard work that goes into their craft.

"At the end of the day, not everyone knows what we do ... They may not understand it," she said.

"We are dancers, we are performers, but we are also athletes. We put the hard work in, we go to training and we learn our routines that we are taught for game day.

"Training is always very intense, and after training, you need to continue practising all throughout the week in the lead-up to the game by yourself.

"Plus, outside of that, you need to be training yourself in general. Whether that's going for a walk, going to the gym – any type of extra physical fitness to keep you in your best shape possible.

"We also take pride in how we look. We do make sure we are looking professional and looking glamorous on game day.

"There's a lot of behind the scenes work that goes into being a cheerleader in the NRL, and it's not always spoken about ... Even on game day, we're there four hours prior to kick-off because we have to rehearse."

Though she will soon be more than 13,000 kilometres away from Australia, Manning enthusiastically promised to keep a close eye on the NRL as the Sharks circle the finals.

"Sharkies are coming sixth at the moment – they're in a good position.

"They've got some tough games ahead of them, but I'll absolutely be keeping up with the Sharks while I'll be away. Most definitely!"