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Column: Cheerleaders are people, too

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I’ve been warned:

“Don’t start writing about cheerleading, or they’ll expect it all the time.”

I’ve been told:

“Cheerleading is not a sport.”

And I’m aware of the prevailing perception:

“Cheerleaders are snobs who are in it only to be popular.”

But we’ve got another week or so until the fall sports seasons kicks into high gear, so why not throw caution to the wind and examine what it really means to be a cheerleader?

Consider this Mythbusters: Pom-Pom Edition.

Picture a cheerleader as portrayed on television or the movies and this scene comes to mind: A group of primped up cheerleaders parading, usually in slow motion, down the middle of a crowded hallway, hands on hips with complete confidence that they rule the school, ready to bully their way into whatever they desire.

“The whole stereotype thing, I hate that so much,” said Greenfield-Central senior cheer captain Allie Dickmann, also a standout track athlete, National Honor Society member and one of the nicest young adults you could hope to meet.

“It’s a lot of what the media puts out there. You see it even on Disney Channel and all these different shows and books. You read about cheerleaders being the snobs; the Mean Girls.”

Sandra Williams, Dickmann’s senior cheer teammate, said that Hollywood has it all wrong. 

“Honestly, if there’s a kid in the hallway that looks like they need help, a cheerleader is the first one to walk up to them,” she said.

Organized cheerleading dates back to the 1870s, when only men were involved in directing chants in support of university teams. Women began to populate the sport during World War II, taking over for men on the sideline, as they did in the workplace. High schools followed the cheerleading trend and, with few, if any, sports available to girls, they picked up megaphones and jumped and tumbled for their teams.

Cheerleading certainly seems to have lost some of its innocence.

Pop culture characterizes these modern-day school spirit providers in every conceivable exploitative manner — attractive airheads, manipulators and capable of rising from the dead, per the movie Cheerleader Zombie Apocalypse.

“So before students even get to high school they’re scared, thinking cheerleaders are the popular kids — ‘Oh they’re the mean ones, they’re the ones to look out for,’” Dickmann said. “And that’s not the case at all.”

Williams finds the prevailing media description of cheerleaders not only laughable, but implausible.

“In the TV shows, they show them prancing around in their uniforms, and we can’t even wear our uniforms to school,” said Williams, noting that cheerleaders must adhere to the school’s dress code, the same as other students. “And they tell us as soon as you get home from the game, get changed out of it. We don’t want to see you running around or in pictures; you need to be out of the uniform. That represents G-C at all times.”

Another policy at G-C, similar to other Hancock County high school cheer groups, is a strict grade guideline. If a Cougars cheerleader receives a C in any class, she’s off the squad.

“We’re students before we are ever an athlete,” Dickmann said. “School comes first in our coach’s eyes. You have to maintain a certain GPA to even be on the squad. Almost the whole team last year was on National Honor Society. We have to uphold a good, quality, classy image for our school, and a big part of that is being intelligent.”

The grade requirement also helps keep the cheer squad from becoming a popularity contest, another myth worth debunking.

“That’s totally false,” G-C cheer coach Rebekah Cerqua said. “We strictly judge at tryouts. We have teacher recommendation that we get from their teachers, how they interact with others, how their grades are.

“The tryouts routines are based off of skills, so to make the varsity squad you must have a standing back handspring and a round-off back handspring. So, no, it’s not always your most popular girls.”

Dickmann said the extensive physical ability needed for cheering exposes the attention-seekers.

“A lot of girls do try out for the uniform factor, to be able to wear the uniform in front of their school, and those girls are tossed away pretty quickly,” she said. “If you don’t have the talent and the drive and the passion for cheering, then you’re gone.”

The physical ability of cheerleaders brings us to perhaps the most controversial question: is it a sport, or merely an activity?

These high schools girls, and a few young men, certainly are exposed to the same injuries as football and basketball players.

A recent study revealed that, although cheerleaders account for 12 percent of the three million female high school athletes, they suffer 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries in girls’ prep sports.

Concussions, broken noses and blown out knees are just a few of the ailments suffered by the Cougars’ squad in the last year. The “flyer” — the cheerleader tossed into the air — is most at risk during stunts.

“A football player knows he’s going to crash into a guy and the ground’s going to be right there,” Williams said. “I flip in the air and hopefully someone catches me.

“All the girls have to rely on is the three girls under them and if those girls aren’t there, then they’re on the ground.”

Cheerleaders at the base of a pyramid are instructed to sacrifice themselves in order to save a wayward flyer.

“If they fall, we throw our bodies underneath them, basically breaking their fall with our own bodies,” Dickmann said.

A high risk of injury alone does not an athlete make, however. Evel Knievel seemingly broke each one of his bones jumping a motorcycle over buses and fountains, but he was more daredevil than skilled sports technician.

Cheerleaders have both the courage and fitness level to qualify as athletes. Most of local girls, including those at G-C, attend a separate tumbling/gymnastics class off-site after their normal cheer practice at the school.

“We have to be able to dance, tumble, do gymnastics, all this, in a matter of two-and-half-minutes and it’s non-stop moving,” said Dickmann, who finished second in the track and field sectional 400 meters race in May. “That’s almost worse than track for me, doing a straight two-and-a-half minute routine, because you are also lifting girls up in the air, tossing them, catching them.”

Track and field is dotted with lean, mean cheerleading machines. Corinne Zehner was a multiple sectional and regional champion hurdler for New Palestine before graduating this spring. One of the Cougars’ 2011-12 cheer seniors, Jacqueline DeCapua, was an accomplished sprinter, and she’s now on the cheer team at Purdue. Not surprisingly, both girls finished near the top of their classes academically.

Anyone who says cheerleaders are not athletes is a moron. As for the validity of cheerleading as a sport, here’s your answer: no and yes.

The stuff you see on the sideline at the football stadium — the chants, T-shirt throwing and High Vs — is not a sport. But today’s spirit stick wavers usually return to school on Saturday mornings for what is very definitely a sport: competitive cheerleading.

High school cheer squads have competition units that take part in regional, statewide and national tourneys, and that’s where the argument for cheerleading as a sport is won.

“I’ll admit that game cheering is not necessarily a sport,” Dickmann said. “We’re out there to get the crowd going, get the boys pumped up for games and that’s mostly just chanting with the crowd, doing jumps, just trying to get them excited.

“Competition on the other hand, combines dance, gymnastics and the actual cheering aspect of it, so we have almost, probably more tumbling than a lot of high level gymnasts have.”

Perhaps it’s because these competitive cheer tournaments take place outside of the Friday Night limelight and away from the Hoosier hardwood, and rarely receive any media coverage (guilty), that cheerleading’s value as a sport is overlooked.

New Palestine’s Adam Barton doesn’t know much about competitive cheerleading, but as a science teacher and boys’ basketball head coach, he deals with the young ladies in the classroom and on game night.

“They are definitely underappreciated for what they do,” Barton said. “Our cheerleaders play a big role in the spirit of the crowd during games and pep sessions, and making sure everything is taken care of as far as getting the crowd in the ball game.

“That’s something we probably need to value a little more than we do.”

As for the perception that cheerleaders are as vain and catty as portrayed on television, Barton disagrees.

“I don’t think so,” he said. “I don’t see them differently than any other kids in class, or any other person in the athletic department for that matter.

“As part of our transportation policy, we actually have them on the bus with us now (going to basketball games). They sit in the front of the bus and quietly do homework or whatever, and we haven’t had a single issue.”

And when they get off the bus, whether it’s for school or a game, cheerleaders are just like any other kid. Except, because of the notoriety that comes with wearing the uniform, they work even harder to excel academically and athletically — and to dispel all those cliquish cheerleading myths.

“I have a wide variety of friends,’ Dickmann said. “And I like to be kind and nice to anyone, because you never know. That could be your future employer one day. You have to be kind to everyone.”

So, there you have it. Cheerleaders are people, too. And they’re welcome in these sports pages anytime.

Brian Harmon is the Greenfield Daily Reporter sports editor. Contact him at (317) 477-3227 or at bharmon@greenfieldreporter.com. 

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