Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Athletes who cheer

The eight-man, eight-woman squad starts the stunting with a few basic maneuvers: the women jump to the men's shoulders, the men lift and balance their partners on one hand. While the average person can't watch this without marveling, to seasoned cheerleaders this is kid stuff.

After a few minutes of basic stunts, squad coach Valerie Faley calls for a more complex maneuver, basket tosses. The students move into formation, four men to one woman. As cheerleader Rob Piper calls off the count, the others suit their actions to the numbers:

The man at the back helps launch the women into the clasped hands of the other three. They toss her into the air, where she does a kick or flip, then straightens to land on her back in the net of hands. The men quickly tilt her onto her feet to complete the maneuver.

The squad runs through its routines, chatting about form as they fling one another into the air and support each other with their bodies.

“Hey,” Diesha Daily says to Dave Sampen as they prepare to do a stunt, “your hand's bleeding.”

He shrugs. Bleeding hands and other wounds come with the territory. Nearby, four men toss April Kreitzer into the air. She does a twist and flip, and alights to the applause of her peers. She's never done that move before. She grins.

Clearly, times have changed since Johnny Campbell stood in front of a University of Minnesota crowd just over a century ago to lead a cheer.

From those first all-male “yell leaders,” in the middle of the 20th century the purveyors of pep evolved into mostly female squads clad in letter sweaters and short skirts. And from there, cheering has morphed yet again into something approaching an acrobatics team, with more and more young men returning to this increasingly athletic activity.

In other words, you can kiss “Strawberry ice cream, huckleberry pie, V-I-C-T-O-R-Y” goodbye.

“It takes athletic people to do cheerleading nowadays,” says Erin Norman, 21, senior captain of the BG squad. “It can't be the pretty girl on the sidelines anymore.”

Cheerleading coaches and other college cheerleaders agree.

“They need to take gymnastics class and work to be the best,” says DeAnna Patton, head coach of the University of Toledo cheerleading squad. “The major thing [is] a strong musculature. No matter how little you are, if you don't have the tone to stay tight in a stunt, no one can stunt with you. Jumping and flipping takes a lot of power.”

Everyone agrees that the person without a gymnastics background operates at a severe disadvantage in today's stunt-based cheerleading.

“Tumbling and gymnastics is more of a requirement,” says Alexa Kehres, coach of Monroe High School's squad. “You have to have a back handspring to get on varsity. It's becoming more difficult. Stunting and gymnastics have become more prominent. It's not just yelling and chanting.”

“If you're not an acrobat, you'll never do it,” says Holly Byrd, a professional cheerleader for the Detroit Fury, an Arena Football League team.

But the increase in complexity has brought a rise in injuries.

“We're seeing more back problems and knee problems,” Ms. Kehres says.

While most squads require their members to run, exercise, and perhaps lift weights, Monroe has developed a program that includes jump training called plyometrics to combat the injuries before they happen.

“We're doing a lot to physically prepare them,” Ms. Kehres says. “They go through a weight program, and a conditioning program. . . . I'm seeing the program pay off.”

But other high school squads, including most in Ohio, have simply stopped doing the stunts at all, relying on ground-bound cheers.

“The whole state of Ohio is 70 percent ground-bound,” Mrs. Patton says. “When you go to competitions around the state, most are non-mount,” meaning no pyramids, no basket tosses, no moves that involve one cheerleader lifting or supporting another person.

While that lessens liability anxieties for Ohio school officials, some coaches and team members would like to be able to stunt. For one thing, stunting attracts males to the activity.

“If they can't stunt, why cheer in high school?” Mrs. Patton asks.

The move toward ground-bound cheering stems from the recommendation of the Ohio High School Athletic Association that schools not allow mounts. The OHSAA prohibits cheerleaders from performing mounts in the tournaments it sponsors.

One of the most recent bans on mounting locally occurred last summer at Rossford High School. The board of education voted to ban lifts and mounts, despite requests from cheerleaders and their parents to keep the stunts.

For Kelly Steele, coach of Whitmer High School's squad, non-mount cheerleading is a new phenomenon. Her squad did it until this year, when the athletic directors league to which Whitmer belongs voted against it.

“We voted to have stunting, and we can do it at non-league home games” Ms. Steele says. “My concern is we're not getting enough practice.”

BG's Miss Faley says the lack of stunting on the high-school level has its good and bad points.

“It's two-edged,” she says. “Girls come to college with a slight disadvantage (a lack of experience). But it forces them to really concentrate on their gymnastics. They take classes so they can be strong for other things. And a lot of coaches don't have training. When you don't have the proper technique, accidents can happen and people can get hurt.”

For men, cheerleading is an enigma wrapped in spangles. While most male spectators enjoy ogling the women, they tend to deride cheerleading as a girl's activity - unless they try it.

“I had a friend who did it, and I tried it and really liked it,” says Cris Criston, 22, a BG cheerleader. “It's a stereotype that it's feminine. Once people see what we do out here, the stereotype goes away. Honestly, this is as good a workout as football.”

The intensity of that workout depends on how many stunts a squad does in a game. Most female cheerleaders weigh between 100 and 120 pounds, with some tipping the scales at as little as 80 or as much as 135. Consider that the men are lifting these women 50 or more times in a three-hour game. That could drain the best of athletes.

But for many men, there's more to it than the workout.

“Stunting - it's addictive,' says Brian Schwab, 23, a senior at the University of Toledo. “Once you do it, you just want to do it more and more. Throwing someone five, six feet in the air, it's neat. And the fans - when they see a girl going up in the air, they think that's the coolest thing.”

But once they graduate, the days of pyramids and basket tosses end too. The lives of most professional cheerleaders looks little like those of their college counterparts, says Ms. Byrd, the Detroit Fury cheerleader.

“A professional cheer team is slightly different,” Ms. Byrd says. “There is still tumbling, and still dancing, but there is no mounting. We're more of a precision dance team.”

The future of cheerleading appears to be up in the air. It's clear that the days of people standing on the sidelines calling cheers are largely over, although not everyone thinks that's a good thing. UT assistant coach Ron Ott, for one, would like to see more synergy between squads and crowds.

“We're cheerleaders, not cheer followers,” he says. “We need to lead.”

And Mrs. Steele, the Whitmer coach, says school spirit has dwindled among non-cheerleaders.

“I'd like to see more school spirit - that has definitely died down from the 1980s. It's hard getting these kids on their feet.”

The one group cheerleaders do not have trouble getting to their feet is girls. Many folks may view cheerleading as a sport, but girls, even very young children, see only pretty ladies and handsome men.

At the BGSU-Temple game, two sisters, both former high school cheerleaders, make their way down the stairs to the field with their young daughters, Maria Escoe, 4, and Aidan Jones, 3. The girls wear tiny orange and white cheerleader-style jumpers and delight in watching the cheerleaders. And when squad member John McNeel picks up Aidan, puts her on his shoulders and trots back to his peers, the child's radiant face says it all.

“They love dressing up,” says Erika Jones, watching her niece twirl around to make her skirt flare out. “That skirt's gotta spin.”

“We're huge football fans,” says Gigi Escoe. “We just bought them new regalia - they're so delighted to put them on.”

Both women say cheerleading has come a long way since their high school days in the 1970s.

“This is much more athletic,” Ms. Escoe says. “They're really true gymnasts now.”

By the end of the game, the grass where the squad has performed is trampled flat and looks shiny under the artificial daylight. At the nearby stairs, nine little girls stare in rapture at the squad. One blond youngster, probably 8 or 9 years old, has glitter on her face, “Go Falcons” written across her forehead in brown and orange, and three pompons - one for each hand and one for her ponytail.

“I wanna be a cheerleader,” she tells her friends, and does an experimental kick under the klieg lights.

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