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Pom-poms now pack more of a punch

Cheerleading today, with all the stunts, tumbling and competitions, isn't for the athletically uninclined.

By VINCENT THOMAS
Published February 19, 2006


They aren't their grandmother's cheerleaders. They aren't their mother's cheerleaders either. They're a new breed.

Most of them don't sport pom-poms to be popular. Looking cute is, at best, a distant second to nailing a stunt, which is proably named something that sounds daunting, like a triple-death-tuck-suicide-hawk. Gone are the days when you could be a cheerleader just because you had a lot of school spirit.

"You have to really be an athlete for this stuff now. It's not about looks anymore. It takes talent. It takes a gymnast's abilities," said Cecilia Page, Springstead cheerleading coach and former cheerleader for the University of Texas.

Page has the girls up at 5 a.m. each morning, running, tumbling and heavy-lifting to prepare them for competitions - such as the one last weekend, the National High School Cheerleading Competition at the Milk House in Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex. She was there with 20 Springstead cheerleaders and assistant coach Tammi Juliano.

Twenty-eight teams from around the country competed against Springstead in the small varsity co-ed competition. In all, there were more than 100 teams and thousands of girls.

* * *

Competitive cheerleading began in the early 1980s and changed everything. Now kids attend cheerleading camps before their parents let them cross the street alone. High school squads spend most of their weekends traveling to local, regional and national competitions. Coaches pay thousands for choreographers to put together stunt and dance routines.

Last weekend's competition had all the identifying marks of the new subculture of competitive cheerleading. There were the parents, including the mother holding a stick with a life-sized picture of her daughter on it. Or the father sporting sunglasses that lit up, who mimed the routine when his daughter's squad was performing. There were the grammar-school teams, with 8-year-old girls performing somersaults and dancing to hyper-caffienated remixes of Baby Got Back.

The competitions have replaced football and basketball games as the center of the cheerleading universe. Their desired audiences no longer are spectators at a football game, but a row of judges.

Page said the routines the Eagles squad performs at football and basketball games are, essentially, practice for the tournaments they compete in.

Tiffany Jimenez is tiny and extroverted and energetic. She can spin, flip, kick and do just about anything she wants in the air. At Disney, she and hundreds of other cheerleaders performed their stunts and dance routines right next to the baseball diamond where the Atlanta Braves play spring ball. Some might say that's as close as they'll get to any true sports forum.

The cheerleaders disagree.

"Uh-uh, wait, we are so athletes. You see what my pass says? It says "athlete,' " said Heather Burnett, the tall, boisterous senior with a husky voice.

They've got the injuries like athletes. Burnett has broken three fingers and has "a permanent bump in my nose." Apparently, she threw some girl 10 or 20 feet in the air and "she landed on my face."

Saturday's competition was stalled almost 30 minutes as doctors tended to a girl who sufferred a concussion after an awkward landing. After Springstead's performance, Brittany Morrissey sat on the floor of the stands with a bulky bag of ice wrapped around her injured ankle.

"How many football players can do the stunts that we do?" Burnett saked.

Burnett was responding to Chris Ferguson's assertion that cheerleading is not a sport. Ferguson plays tight end for the Eagles. The girls call him Fergie. He's a big guy. His left bicep is bigger than Jimenez. But, Page and the rest of squad, reminded him that with all those muscles, he still had trouble lifting some of the tiny cheerleaders over his head when he first started.

"Okay, you're right. But cheerleading is no different than any other sport," Ferguson responded.

"See, you said "sport,' " Brittany Rice said. She caught him.

Recently, the Florida High School Athletic Association tentatively designated cheerleading as an "emerging sport."

"What that basically means," said Denarvise Thonrton, FHSAA's senior director of athletics and officials, "is that our membership are interested in getting it recognized by the association."

Thornton said cheerleading will go before the board of directors to become a recognized sport, whereby it will have to abide by FHSAA bylaws and guidelines regarding eligibility and sportsmanship and eventually take part in an official state championship if it becomes a sanctioned sport.

Thornton said he has no idea if cheerleading will reach those points. "That's what next year is for," he said.

* * *

Springstead's inclusion in the exclusive national competition is somewhat remarkable. Just a couple years ago, the girls said their cheerleading squad was a joke.

"You would just come to games and not do anything," Burnett said. "There was no stunting or practice or competitions. The team was just there."

The Page came through with her pedigree and - presto! - the Eagles are at Disney. But what should have been the Eagles' chance to test the waters and see where the program stood against the best basically became a vacation.

Page said nine didn't make the trip. The "ghetto team," as Page called them, did. Some, such as Christine Alberts, were injured. Others were taking their ACTs and some "quit on us," Rice said. This meant pulling girls up from JV and grabbing other football players, such as Ferguson and Charlie Hulse as replacements. The result wasn't so great. They looked unprepared.

Some teams moved onto the finals, which had some cheerleaders in tears or rolling on the floor hugging each other or panting "Oh my god!" 10 times in a row. The Eagles knew their names wouldn't get called, so there wasn't much emotion when they learned they wouldn't be advancing to the finals.

"At least we made it here," Vicky Martin said.

Vincent Thomas can be reached at vthomas@sptimes.com or 352-848-1430.

[Last modified February 19, 2006, 01:08:19]


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