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Forget the pom poms

Connie Steiert
Preston Utley/Vail DailyThe Eagle Valley high school chearleaders preform during a pep rally for the foootball team.
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EAGLE COUNTY – Make no mistake; cheerleading has changed.It’s not your mother’s cheerleading anymore, and in the eyes of the Colorado High School Activities Association, cheerleading is considered a sport. The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research reports cheerleading is a leading cause of serious head and spine injuries in girls. “The evolution of cheerleading was to the point it was not just a performance anymore,” said Rhonda Blanford-Green, a former cheerleader whose is now an assistant commissioner with the Colorado High School Activities Association.Because all school spirit groups, including dance, drill and cheer teams, are under the sports umbrella, the activities association can better regulate safety, said Blanford-Green, who went to the organization’s board six years ago to plead cheerleading be classified a sport. The days of pom poms and megaphones had long passed, she said. “I said we need to have an accountability – not only for our cheerleaders that perform, but for our coaches,” she said.Today, there are 224 registered high school cheerleading teams in Colorado, 219 of which participate in state competitions. The sport has become the ninth most popular among females nationwide. And, year after year, stunts grow more elaborate as the popularity of cheer competitions grows.Gymnasts’ influenceEagle Valley High School’s cheerleading squad, at nine members, is small compared to other schools in its class, yet squad performs surprisingly difficult maneuvers.

“We’re the smallest team in 4A, but we are highly competitive,” senior Krysten Guse said. “We do things that teams with 14 or more usually do.” Attend a Eagle Valley High School basketball or football game and you likely will see the squad performing difficult shoulder stands or the “liberty,” where the squads holds up a cheerleader who performs aerial stunts in an extended, one-footed position. Junior Yazmin Ruiz, one of the cheerleaders who holds up the aerialist, or “flyer,” said the team does 80 different cheers.”Some of the stuff they do is so fancy it is probably collegiate level,” said Jennifer Wright, the cheerleading coach. “It’s amazing, because we’re such a small squad, but we’re so advanced,” said freshman Beth Bortz, a flyer. One of the reasons cheerleading maneuvers have become more difficult is the gymnasts joining the squads. “Three of us competed in gymnastics, but they didn’t have it in high school, so I came to cheerleading instead,” said Guse, who choreographs many of the team’s combination stunts. Yet, these girls shrugged off the image of cheer as a dangerous sport. Junior Katie Ferguson, another flyer who is tossed upwards and does twists in the air, said karate classes are more dangerous. But teammate senior Allysa Voborny, who also takes her turn at flyer, disagrees.”It’s much more dangerous up in the air; you can fall to the ground,” she said.Cheerleader Jessica Gordon is the only member of the team out with an injury. But, she said, she recently learned she is missing a vertebrae in her spine and that’s why the cheer jumps took a toll. How many twists?

Blanford-Green said statistics and media reports about cheerleading injuries are misleading. She has only seen one injury that sent a cheerleader to the emergency room in the past three years – and that was from snowboarding, she said.The problem is that in recent years a large number of “cheer gyms” have sprung up while gymnastics programs and dance studios have also begun holding cheerleading classes. Stunts prohibited by the high school activities association may be attempted in those programs, which also may use improperly trained coaches, Blanford-Green said. “Injuries are going to happen because this is a sport and there is a risk,” she said. “But the injuries are skewed when they don’t place them separately from all the all-star or fly-by-night cheer gyms that don’t have the expertise or knowledge of cheers.””Injuries are not caused in cheerleading by the stunt,” Wright added. “Injuries happen when you do not do a stunt as you should.” The activities association’s safety commission hands out a stunt manual to every high school in Colorado at the beginning of each year. Additionally, every high school coach must attend a mandatory safety class, and additional safety and training clinics are also offered, Blanford-Green said. At Eagle Valley, all coaches must be certified by the activities association. Cheerleaders also attend a camp that teaches safe stunts and safety measures. Those measures include performing in a baseball-diamond shape formation around the basketball court. Cheerleaders are not allowed to build pyramids more than one-person high; they are not allowed to perform flips while twisting in the air; and they can’t do more than one twist during a stunt. Because accidents occur when cheerleaders are not conditioned enough, Eagle Valley’s squad trains as hard as any of the school’s other athletes, Guse said. The girls start practice every school morning at 7:15 a.m. and continue until 8:15 a.m., then train again from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. – even on game days.The cheers, jumps and stunts are done on wrestling mats with some of the cheerleaders acting as spotters. The girls also perfect their teamwork, cheerleader Noel Legace said.

“One of the biggest things is trusting each other,” Legace said. This article first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise. Vail, Colorado


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