POSTED ON NOVEMBER 9, 2011:
Tulsa cheer takes the field with new athleticism
She's blonde. She's adorable. She's a cheerleader, and she'll kick your ass.
Today's cheerleaders are a far cry from days of yore, when they were little more than arm candy for the quarterback: spirited, silly, angora-clad Barbie dolls who may or may not be ditzes. The young men and women populating today's cheer world are acrobats, aerialists, and most importantly, athletes.
Kayla Reather/Edison Eagles
That last word invokes what is perhaps the biggest obstacle facing today's cheerleaders (largely a high-school-aged world): the perception that they are not, in fact, athletes. One would be hard-pressed to find a cheerleader who didn't have a comment on that. Take, for instance, Kayla Reather. She's a co-captain of Edison Preparatory School's varsity cheer squad, and she's also the adorable (and indescribably tough) blonde who could easily open up a can of whoop-ass on you if she thought you needed it. Don't tell her she's not an athlete.
"For one thing, an athlete is somebody who competes in their sport, and cheer is definitely competitive," she said. Hers is an airy soprano speaking voice that belies the fire inside her. "There's so much competition. We compete as a team against other squads, and even against our own team members when we are trying out for team spots."
But most people who say cheer isn't a sport, or that golf is, probably aren't thinking in terms of competition equaling sport. Most look at the physicality of what's being done. Like, who doesn't think football is a sport, right? People run, they get knocked around, they get hurt. But those guys have full body armor on. Cheerleaders do the very same thing, and their only protection is a sports bra.
Reather riffed on that idea, as well, with only the slightest hint of frustration in her otherwise sweet voice. "I wish people knew the amount of time that goes into cheer and that the time we spend practicing isn't girls running around in skirts. It's legit practice," she said. "We run three miles a day, then we throw people around, then we lift our legs over our heads." So yeah. That sounds an awful lot like a sport.
Kristi Rogers, Cheer Coordinator at Jenks High School, spoke to the athletic demands of today's cheerleaders, as well, echoing many of Reather's sentiments.
"Our practices are intense. It's not just girls standing around crossing their arms and hanging out," she said. "Cheerleading is the number one injury-inducing sport. That doesn't happen without serious work involved."
And she's right. A few decades ago, the cheerleaders (before any of the Bring It On movies) were often pretty little kewpie dolls at best, and at worst, punchlines. But cheerleading injuries (which go far beyond the broken nails that the occasional uninformed jokester might crack wise about) don't happen while sitting around popping gum and gossiping -- and admit it: you know a part of you still thinks that's what cheer is. But it's hard work.
And it's changed. And it continues to change. Reather's faculty sponsor at Edison, Renee Rabovsky, cheered in the late-90s and early-2000s on the very squad she now sponsors. She spoke about the changes she's seen firsthand -- cheering, then sponsoring.
"Actually, high school cheer now is like all-star cheer was then," she said. All-star cheer, incidentally, is an even more intense version of cheer run through private gyms. Generally, all-star cheerleaders have more tumbling skills across the board than the average high school squad, in such a way that the "all-star" moniker is really pretty accurate. Their routines are harder, their practices are longer, and often, the absence of one tumbling skill is the difference between a kid making the team or getting cut.
"It's just become so much more competitive now," Rabovsky ("Robo" to her cheerleaders) continued. "It was like high school cheer was for fun. I mean, we were good, but it just wasn't as competitive. It wasn't nearly as competitive as it is now. You didn't have to be near the athlete that you have to be now."
Making the Grade
So how do cheerleaders dispel this notion that what they do is frivolous, easy, and not a sport?
"I think we change that perception by proving the athleticism of our kids," Jenks' Rogers said. "They can lift girls, they can tumble." And there's more, in that there's not a whole lot of time during the actual cheerleading events in which one has downtime: "If you're on the sidelines and your team is losing, or they're winning by 50 points, the cheerleaders are still working hard doing their things."
Cathryn Weeden, one of two varsity coaches for Union High School, has a speech at the ready. "The way I look at it, you're asked to be a strong dancer, to have the endurance of a runner and the strength of a bodybuilder, and you're expected to look good while doing all of that. And that's not just physical appearance, it's looking like whatever you're doing is easy. It's like being onstage. It's a multi-faceted sport."
Weeden also spoke at length about the time commitment, and the overwhelming nature of the cheer schedule in general. "In the summer, we are practicing skills -- we're throwing tumbling, we're working on jumps, and we're figuring out what girls will work in which stunt groups. When we come back in the fall, we're working exclusively on Regionals and State [competition] routines.
"By October, they've mastered skills from the summer, and we're pushing to improve those. Around November, we start shifting to working on our Nationals routine. After nationals, we keep going," she said. Since cheerleading is a class at Union, the cheerleaders meet as a squad every single school day. There isn't really a way to take time off -- it's not like the teacher can just tell the class that they're not going to meet for the next few months.
"We never really take a break. Our tumbling coaches come in Mondays and Tuesdays throughout the year. We do strength and conditioning on Wednesdays. We never have down time," Weeden said. "I think that's one reason we're so successful. When we come back from Nationals, hopefully, we've won and we're on a high, then we start working on stuff for tryouts in April." And it all starts again, except minus any kind of break. Or rest. Or time off. Or healing.
There's also the dedication of the coaches.
"I coach five different teams," said Claire Morris, who serves as Reather's coach at Edison (and my beloved wife). "It's, like, all I ever think about. Instead of lying in bed at night thinking about my kids [we have five] or my husband I think about how I need to fix this transition or redo that stunt combination." So it's an all-encompassing endeavor for cheerleaders and coaches alike.
And it's a world of sacrifices.
Cheerleaders make sacrifices that, honestly, set them apart from other sports. After all, everyone else has an offseason. Reather echoed Weeden's thoughts on the never-ending nature of cheer.
"There are lots of sacrifices made for cheer. Time is a big one, obviously, because we only get one month off a year," she said, indicating that Weeden's Union kids and their grueling schedule are by no means the exception. "I mean, we start practice in the first week of August, and we practice until the end of June. So that's literally one month off."
But where Weeden's thoughts focused on the lack of downtime, Reather went further, delving into sacrifices beyond being at practice a lot, pointing to the cheerleaders' (mostly, but not exclusively young women) many sacrifices, and that they are made often.
"We practice every morning at 7, so you sacrifice your sleep, your body, your rest. I've hurt my back, my knees, everything I can think of. Then you don't get the rest your body needs to heal because you have to go to cheer practice," she said. Many squads spend long days practicing over the winter break, which then cuts into cheerleaders' family time.
"I don't get to be at every family dinner or family function because of cheer," Reather said. "When we have practice over Christmas break, I don't get to see my cousins and people who are visiting from out-of-town because we have three or four days of Christmas break where we have 8-hour practices. So yeah, there are tons of sacrifices."
And many of those sacrifices go far beyond being sleepy or missing out on pulling the wishbone with cousins. It is nigh impossible to talk to a cheerleader or a cheer coach without the specter of injury rearing its head.
Shake It Off
Rogers earlier referred to cheer as the number one injury-inducing sport. When she got into specifics, it's not a surprising statistic. Actually, it's a little scary. And pretty freaking awesome.
"If you're up high and doing tricks, you expect your cheerleaders to catch you. There's a different kind of risk involved," she said. "You've got a girl flying around in the air, and three girls have to catch her. You're going to eventually get a black eye and a bloody lip. It's just part of it."
Just a small part of it, because beyond a fat lip, there are broken bones, dislocations, concussions and the like, and these aren't out-of-the-ordinary occurrences. These are everyday concerns and a real part of cheer.
"The cheerleaders aren't wearing any protection. It's just their body," Rogers said.
Remember all that talk above about how tough Kayla Reather is? Well, she can back it up, though she does so modestly. And, to be honest, with more than a little nonchalance.
"I have a patella disorder in both of my knees, I have a lower back injury, I have muscle spasms -- five in particular that I get cortisone shots for," she said, speaking with a matter-of-factness that gave no indication at all that these things were either out of the ordinary nor anything for which she wanted any pity. She even gets a semi-regular epidural to alleviate pain and complications from a protruding disc in her back ("I was recommended to get another one this fall, but I skipped it," because getting the shot meant missing a practice).
"I've had at least two concussions, and I've dislocated my rib head from my spine," she continued. But she has never missed a practice. Ever.
"Well, like when I messed up my rib head, I didn't tumble that day, but I've never officially missed practice," she qualified. Compare that to professional baseball players who spend fifteen days on the DL when their hamstrings are a little sore.
One additional risk of all this potential physical damage is the aforementioned casual nature with which many of these cheerleaders view their dents and dings. Reather, for example, hates going to the doctor. Why?
"Doctors just give you bad news," she said. Besides, if you don't go to the doctor, he can't tell you that you're not allowed to cheer for a week due to a head injury. Now, boys and girls, that's the textbook definition of tough.
Reather's coach Morris, has, on more than one occasion, referred to the girl as "tougher than anyone I've ever met," but Reather downplays her grit.
"I honestly think everyone should be that way. If you get hurt, I feel like everyone should just shake it off. Complaining about it doesn't get us anywhere," she said.
Coach Morris agrees, noting a difference that non-athletes often fail to grasp.
"There's a difference between being hurt and being injured." To someone unfamiliar with the daily meat grinder that the hard work of cheer is, that's cold comfort. But the athletes know these differences and work with and through them.
Taking Home the Gold
What could be worth all this physical damage, all this pain and discomfort?
Past that, even just competing, but unlike pretty much every other sport, where you have an entire season to make your mark, cheerleaders have their entire year boil down to 150 seconds on the competition floor.
"Winning is definitely the icing on the cake," according to Reather. "It shows you that your hard work paid off -- the injury, the pain, the being sick -- it's worth something in the end."
So it's two and a half minutes, but that time happens in some pretty neat places, and yields some wonderful results from time to time.
Weeden enumerates Union's competition appearances, and these mirror the schedules of a great many other high school programs.
"We compete at Regionals, which we won this year, we compete at State, which we also won this year," Weeden says with no small amount of pride in her voice. "We'll compete at a Universal Cheerleaders Association qualifier in November. We have one competition in January, and then we have Nationals in February." Oh, and that February excursion is held in Orlando -- theme parks and all.
Competitions have been kind to Weeden and her Union squad.
"In the last four years, we've won nationals three times," she said. "Pretty awesome." Hey, in the paraphrased words of Kid Rock, it ain't bragging, mother-grabber, if you back it up. Add to those wins an honor very recently conferred upon Weeden by her cheerleading coach peers -- that of Region 7 Cheerleading Coach of the Year.
So when a season boils down to an amount of time shorter than the commercial break at the half-hour point of your favorite network television series, how does one handle the pressure? What do the coaches do?
Amanda Craft/BA Tigers
"Hope and pray," Rogers said. "You get them ready, and you stand in the coach's box and you pray to the cheer gods that everything works out. And if it doesn't, then it's a learning experience. The kids might be upset, but they can also understand that for two and a half minutes, maybe it wasn't our day. Sometimes that happens." That would seem to indicate a level of maturity completely absent from the stereotype of the ditzy cheer girl, and Rogers would agree.
"I think our cheer kids are way more mature for their age," she said. "But I think cheer requires a lot of discipline, and because they've had these experiences, they know you can't win all the time. They have two and a half minutes, not one or 12 or 15 games."
Edison's Morris and her colleagues often refer to those two minutes and 30 seconds with humor, but it's a biting humor that speaks to the amount of pressure.
"I'm not sure at what point I decided it would be a good idea to have a career in which my job depends on the success or failure of teenagers under pressure," she said. "But I keep doing it because I love it."
Pressure, teenagers, success, failure -- all of it ends up being mitigated, or at least the coaches hope it does, by the maturity level of which Rogers spoke.
The cheerleaders themselves are aware of this, as well. And they know that -- without being trite -- often, the journey itself is the destination.
While not everyone can win first place, it is apparent from the results of State competition that cheerleading in and around Tulsa is pretty powerful. The Oklahoma Secondary Schools Athletic Association (OSSAA), the governing body for high school cheerleading, among other things, divides all participating schools into groups based on school population, which yields the ubiquitous "A" designations. The smaller schools fill out 4A, 3A, 2A, and down, while the Jenkses and Unions and Edisons of the world populate the 5A and 6A classes.
This year at State, no fewer than 13 Tulsa-area schools competed. While only Union won its division, the fact that so many teams from this area even made it out of Regionals to compete at State indicates the saturation of not just cheer in our part of the world, but of quality cheer.
Local 5A schools Cascia Hall and Heritage Hall placed third and fourth, respectively, in their division. In 6A, Union won, while Edison finished ahead of Booker T. Washington (though both were out of medal contention). Sure, Edison and Washington didn't win, but one must keep in mind that all the schools at State had to excel at Regionals. In the coed division, Broken Arrow finished just off the mark in second place (behind Choctaw), while Jenks took fifth. Lower finishers from the Tulsa area included Claremore, Bixby, Owasso, Metro Christian Academy, Glenpool, Sapulpa, and Memorial High School.
"Competition is definitely the fun part," Reather said. "Like showing off all the things we've worked on for the year, and, like, how far we've come since last year." Sometimes, as Rogers said, the cheer gods are kind, and sometimes they aren't.
"When you don't win, it's like the judges are telling you, 'You're almost there, but you're not quite first place material yet,'" Reather said. "And you think, 'I wish I could have practiced it just one more time.'" This is after months and months of practice, hospital visits, absences from family functions and lost sleep. But it's not a deterrent -- at least not to Reather and her ilk.
"Yeah, it really sucks when you don't win. Still, I love cheer. I can't imagine my life without it," she said.
This from the kid who has dislocated body parts most of us don't even know we have (who ever heard of a rib head before reading this article?).
Lest anyone think cheer is a mortally dangerous endeavor that should be the subject of yet another congressional inquiry, Weeden had this to say: "Look, you can get injured flying a kite. Anything can hurt you. But what makes cheer so unique is that you have to be all of these different people. You have to be all these different sports rolled into one," she said.
Jacks (Jills?) of all trades, and masters of all.
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