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Cheerleader. What do you think of when you hear that word?
Girls in short skirts cheering for guys? A fun way to be involved and show your school spirit?
Whatever your image of a cheerleader, you may find there is a lot more to cheering than you thought. For one thing, it is not just about supporting and rallying sports teams. It has become a sport in its own right.
There are two types of cheerleaders: competitive (known as all-star), who compete against other cheerleading teams, and cheer squads, which perform at football and basketball games.
"In the past 15 years, there has been a dramatic increase in the all-star market," says Sheila Noone, editorial director of American Cheerleader Magazine. All-star cheering is not run through schools to support teams. Instead, kids and teens join independent squads that practice out of private gyms or training centers and travel to competitions.
HERE COME THE BOYS
With cheerleading taking on a more competitive aspect, some boys have decided cheerleading is cool. They've also discovered it's hard work.
"I was one of those guys making fun of (cheerleading)," admits Matt E., 17, of Arlington Heights, Ill. "The coach challenged me to go through one practice." The rest, as they say, is history. Matt, who also plays football, wrestles and runs track, decided he wanted to continue with cheerleading.
Jeff J., 17, of Arlington Heights originally joined it for the girls - he wanted to meet them. "I can tell you I had zero respect before I had done it. But going through a season of it, I am in the best shape of my life," he says.
Wes B., 18, of Elk Grove Village, Ill., a football player for three years, agrees. Cheerleading is "a different kind of hard," he says.
All three have had to put up with some kidding, especially from other guys. "One of my other coaches calls me rah-rah man," Matt says.
"The guys get made fun of more than girls," Wes says. "But I don't care. People should make their own choices."
THE FLY GIRLS
Probably one of the scariest aspects of cheerleading is the girls who fly - these are the smaller girls who get tossed into the air. It looks spectacular, but if something goes wrong it can be a catastrophe.
As cheerleading has grown from cheering at games to televised all-star competitions, the stunts have gotten harder and riskier. Last August, a 14-year-old girl from Medford, Mass., fell during a cheerleading practice and died. A month later, an Illinois cheerleader fell during practice and found she couldn't move her legs. Luckily, she suffered only from spinal shock, not spinal injury, and recovered after a few hours.
Andrea K., 17, of Homewood, Ill., has been involved in cheerleading since she was in 7th grade. She regularly does stunts in which she is tossed, and admits it is dangerous. Still, she says, she couldn't wait to go up in the air. "Definitely a lot of girls are nervous (when they first try a stunt)," she says.
According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, cheerleading causes more severe injuries to high school girls - we're talking disabled, died or had to spend some significant time in the hospital - than any other sport.
"You are taught how to fall 1/8safely3/8," says Katie G., 16, of Arlington Heights. "Fliers also have to trust their bases (the girls and boys who hold them up and catch them)," but it creates tighter friendships, she says.
YOU HAVE TO PRACTICE
To learn those difficult stunts and get skilled enough to do them safely, cheerleaders have to work at it.
Andrea, who cheers for her school and is on an all-star team, says her weekly schedule goes something like this: She practices 2 1/2 hours each day Monday through Thursday, she cheers at a game on Friday night, which takes up about six hours, then she usually practices again for another two to three hours Saturday.
As for the idea that cheerleaders are always at parties, that's a myth, she says. Any remaining time Andrea has is taken up by homework. "We are all real good at keeping up our grades," she says of her teammates.
Wes agrees the practice schedule is demanding: "It takes over your life," he says.
Plus, cheerleading season is never over, unlike other sports, such as basketball or football. There are tryouts in the spring, camps and competitions in the summer, and cheering for teams in the fall and winter.
THE IMAGE PROBLEM
Considering the dangers involved and the skill level, you would think cheerleading would be respected. But it's not.
"People think we're stupid girls out there, but if people have gone to a competition, they know we have to be strong and in good physical shape," Katie says.
While part of the image problem may lie with Hollywood portrayals of cheerleaders and well-known professional squads such as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders, that's not the whole story.
"It depends on the situation. There can be cheerleading squads that are highly athletic. On the other hand, there are cheerleading squads which glorify preening," says Nancy Gruver, publisher and founder of New Moon Magazine, a publication for girls 8 to 14 that focuses on their dreams and not their looks.
"I'm not singling out cheerleaders. The environment and culture 1/8also3/8 tell girls to put themselves out as a sex object. This is especially harmful in elementary school. It gives girls and boys the message that a girl's primary value is in her physical attractiveness," Gruver says.
SOME LIKE THE CHALLENGE
With the hard work, danger and dumb image, why would anyone want to do it? Plenty of reasons, say the cheerleaders we spoke to.
Some like the challenge. "I play softball in summer. Cheerleading is harder because I only have two minutes to do it right . . . versus a whole game," Katie says.
It's a highly visible activity, and you act as an ambassador for your school, says Elizabeth Rosetti, president and founder of AmeriCheer, a camp based in Westerville, Ohio.
There also are opportunities: The number of cheerleading scholarships for college has grown in the past decade, from 98 to more than 250, Noone says.
But the main reason most kids cheer seems to be because it's a lot of fun. Jeff agrees: "I go to several competitions, some overnight. You're around a lot of people and form some good friendships."
(c) 2005, Chicago Tribune. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.