COLUMBIA — It was the 2004 World Spirit Federation Nationals in Tulsa, Okla. My teammates and I gathered backstage for our precompetition ritual. Standing in a huddle, all hands in the middle clasped in unity, jumping up and down as one body, we chanted loudly:
“C-H-E-E-R A-T-H-L-E-T-I-C-S! If you mess with the best, you’ll go down like the rest!”
Our confident voices echoed like thunder throughout the cavernous room, and I could feel the intense glare of our competitors’ eyes boring into us. We turned as one, and pumped with adrenaline, stared back. Our challengers’ eyes filled with fear and doubt before darting away as if looking for the nearest escape route.
We were the renowned Cheer Athletics from Dallas, the most successful all-star cheerleading program in history. It had earned more national and world championships than any other gym in the country. Every member from this celebrated institution deserved and wanted to be at nationals to have the chance to earn personal glory after months of excruciating training. However, more important than the individual accolades was winning for the team and for our gym. Every girl on the squad knew the objective was to win, and we also knew that if we didn’t, there would be consequences.
A loud voice boomed through the stadium announcing we were next to compete.
Pumped with adrenaline, I took a deep breath, said a quick prayer and put on my game face. We had trained nearly every day for the past six months to perfect our routine. All the long, hard, practices boiled down to this — a 2 minute, 30 second performance where one mistake could cost a championship.
The pressure was on.
The excitement and anticipation was palpable as my team walked onto the mat. We were the last to compete in the small junior category and because we had gone undefeated all season, eager fans piled into the convention center to watch us.
“Let’s go, girls!” shouted one of my teammates as we exchanged high fives before taking our spots on the mat. “This is what we’ve been waiting for. Show them what Cheer Athletics is all about!”
Standing under the bright lights, I felt energized, yet suddenly wary, almost a sense of foreboding, a feeling something would go wrong. After all, I had only recently perfected a new tumbling pass that now included a round off, three back handsprings and a layout. All kinds of things could go wrong. ”Stop thinking the worst,” I reassured myself. As a competitive cheerleader for several years, I was well aware of the preshow jitters that accompany competitions and had all kinds of ways to quiet those mental demons that can derail the toughest of athletes.
Wiping my palms on the blue and black pleats of my skirt, I shook out the tight muscles of my legs before looking up at the crowd with a confident smile. The moments before the routine began were exhilarating. The atmosphere rang with anticipation, and the stadium fell silent. As soon as the music boomed from the loudspeakers, adrenaline kicked in and an uncontrollable force took over my body propelling me forward onto center stage.
I moved through the first 15 seconds of the routine with ease and perfection. My toe-touch backflip was spot on, and with a quick wink at the judges, I danced my way to the front of the mat for my tumbling pass.
Round off, backhand spring, backhand spring, backhand spring, layout, POP!
That’s the sound my left knee made when I landed the final flip. When I tried to step forward, I collapsed. My dependable leg, a leg with well-developed quadriceps, a leg so strong I could base another cheerleader with no effort, now felt like a piece of spaghetti. There was no time to think. I kept performing. No way was I going to ruin my team’s chance at a national title; no way was I going to be the one to disappoint coaches, family and friends.
Each time I put weight on my left leg, my knee popped out of place. There was no pain, though, (wasn’t this a good sign?), and I started to believe I was simply in the middle of a bad dream. This lack of pain and surreal feeling continued as my body went into shock. Tears suddenly streamed down my face, and I frantically pleaded to my now freaked out teammates to “HELP ME,” but, everyone continued the routine because they were not sure what to do. Should we stop and signal the coaches that something is wrong? Should we continue until someone notices and cuts the music? In cheerleading, you perform until the music stops no matter what. This is how we were trained, so this is what we did.
The routine continued for several more seconds. It felt like an eternity. Finally, even though we had not completed our routine, the music cut. I fell to the mat. Within seconds, my coaches, my mom and paramedics surrounded me. The stadium fell silent again. Concern and dread cut through the air like a dagger. I felt as helpless as an insect pinned to a microscope slide.
Everyone knew what was wrong with my leg, but no one wanted to say it out loud. My anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) were torn. I would have to undergo arthroscopic surgery and spend six months in physical therapy. I feared for the future of my cheerleading career, but mostly worried that my team’s shot at first place was over.
This wasn’t the first time that cheerleading had left me battered and bruised on a mat. Within my first year of competitive cheering, I had broken two bones in my arm, tore my hamstring and pulled both groin muscles. That doesn’t even include the minor injuries sustained in nearly every practice. “Pain was gain,” and after physical therapy, a true athlete was back in the gym. Coaches don’t waste time babying cheerleaders, even though an estimated 16,000 cheerleaders are injured every year in accidents involving dramatic stunts and tumbles. It’s called competitive cheerleading for a reason — the stakes are high and there are always other talented cheerleaders waiting to take your spot on the team.
A recent study by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research found that in the past 25 years, cheerleading accounted for more than half of 112 catastrophic injuries to female high school and college athletes, including three deaths. Sports medicine researchers at Columbus Children's Hospital warn that the sport has become much more dangerous in the past two decades. In a study published in the January 2007 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics, the authors reveal that emergency room visits for cheerleaders between the ages of 5 and 18 increased 110 percent from 1990 to 2002.
Why do people choose to enter a world where falling on your head during flips and getting kicked in the face and elbowed in the mouth is more commonplace than tying your shoe?
Because cheerleading rules. Every day at the gym is a risky adventure of increasingly daring gymnastics and high-flying acrobatics. It’s a culture of athletes who can flip fast, dance hard and throw high. And when you have a shelf full of trophies to show for your skill, the grueling work is all the more gratifying. When injuries occur, you have the support of the team. The camaraderie and the exhilaration during competition are worth the injuries that come with the sport.
I was a gymnast for three years until third grade when I decided to jump on board the competitive cheerleading wagon. Cheerleading became my passion, my life. I spent five days a week year round at the gym training for competitions. My coaches were my other parents; my teammates, my other siblings.
In eighth grade, I tried out for school cheerleading and transferred to Cheer Athletics. I was ecstatic when I made it on one of its teams. This was where the best cheerleaders in the country trained. I knew that I would be pushed to my physical limit. I would become an elite athlete, a national champion, and most importantly, I’d gain the tools needed to become a college cheerleader for a top team like USC, the University of Louisville or the University of Kentucky.
We had two-hour practices three times a week, and we were required to take tumbling class on top of that. I cheered at school games once a week, attended CA practice, took two tumbling classes and signed up for private tumbling lessons. I cheered seven days a week, multiple times a day. I’d never felt so devoted to anything. I planned my entire future around cheering and wanted to become a coach at my gym after graduating college.
I tried to return to the sport, but it wasn’t the same. Feeling like a damaged toy, a fear of re-injuring myself kept me from fully functioning at the level my cheerleading club required. I felt like Humpty Dumpty.
In coming to terms with my departure from the sport, I went through the various stages of grief. By the time I finished physical therapy, I was somewhere between anger and depression. I still went to all of my team’s practices to support them. It killed me to watch my team continue without me. I was glad they found a replacement, but I was scared that this new girl would replace me permanently.
Today, I can no longer tumble, I have two permanent screws in my knee, and I’m still afraid to engage in high impact activities. On the bright side, I now have plenty of time to try other activities. I found a passion for journalism, met new friends outside of the gym and have held a few awesome jobs. I’ve come to terms with cheerleading no longer being a part of my life, but I still miss those glory days.
And in case you were wondering, we did win nationals. The judges were kind enough to let my team perform the routine again, and they rocked it! Overcoming adversity — the Cheer Athletics way.