I started cheerleading in the sixth grade when I was just 11 years old, fresh off the ballet floor and looking for something new. I practiced long hours in the garage and at the gym, learning everything from a cartwheel to how to squeeze the muscles in my arms to make the motions tight and strong. Hours after hours of rehearsing dance moves, stretching, and learning to shake my pom-poms paid off when I earned a spot two years later on the best cheerleading squad in the state.
We competed throughout the year, a fast-paced routine of tumbling, jumping, cheering, and stunting. Then came high school with bigger stunts and tumbles, more advanced skills and more hours in the gym. We were athletes, logging hours in the weight room and practicing with sweat running down our backs. We lifted 120 lbs of human into the air, flipped ourselves across wood floors, but were still seen as pretty girls with pom-poms who cheered for the real athletes, the boys on the field.
It’s no mistake that the picture you see above (me, at seventeen years old) has a pair of crutches in it. While I was healthy, the girl behind me in the jeans was nursing a torn ankle ligament from landing wrong after a layout (a tumbling flip without hands). I was used to pulled muscles and sprains. My teammates knew how to tape ankles and I wore a brace on my wrist for backhandsprings. My first real injury didn’t come until freshman year of high school when my flyer (aka the girl I threw in the air) landed on my face and broke my nose, giving me a slight concussion. The broken finger from a backhandspring a few months later was worse.
But still, that wasn’t too bad. It was worse watching my 15-year-old teammate get her front teeth knocked out by an elbow on a basket toss (throwing a girl twenty feet in the air). That shook my parents up and they begged me to consider to wear a mouth guard like my brothers did in football. “Dad, I can’t,” I explained. “How am I supposed to cheer or count for the stunts if I have a huge piece of plastic in my teeth?”
My parents were thankful that my days of cheering were nearing an end when I received my second concussion my senior year. We were in practice and my flyer stood on our hands. We popped her into the air and she spun once to gain momentum, but her second spin was too loose, too fast, too low. Her elbow connected with my right temple and stars exploded in front of my eyes. I didn’t cry until I got home and couldn’t make it out of the shower. I was confused and dizzy and I just wanted to sleep. My mother drove me straight to the doctor, where I had a CAT scan. I don’t remember any of that, which scares me.
It was a worse injury than either of my football-playing brothers ever received. I remember their hip pointers and pulled muscles and turf burn, but they never lost their memory or broke bones or loosened teeth. Here’s the deal: cheerleaders are only second to football players in sports-related injuries. More than 37,000 cheerleaders went to the ER last year.
I think about my children and watch the stunts cheerleaders do today, even more advanced than what I experienced, and I feel nervous. We MUST do something to protect cheerleaders and regulate the activity. The easiest and fastest solution? Make cheerleading an official sport. That’s right, it’s not an “official” sport, which means there are no rules on stunting or regulations on practice times or mandatory coach training.
As one cheerleader says in an ABC News video, “Most athletes throw balls around. We throw other cheerleaders around. What’s harder to catch?”
You were right, Dad. It’s time to find a way to make that mouth guard work.