If you had asked me the question about whether or not cheerleading was a sport, for several years I would have told you no, it was not.
This would have been primarily based on my recollections from my time in high school. They were called 'Pep Squads' then.
There were two groups — cheerleaders and song-leaders. The cheerleaders actually led cheers.
I recall one or two in particular.
The most famous was: "Two bits, four bits, six bits, a dollar, all for (list home team here), stand up and holler."
And then some annoying boys in the stands (myself included) would chant our own version: "Two stars, four stars, six stars, a comet, all for (list visiting team here), stand up and vomit." (Oh, two bits is a quarter or 25 cents, for those of you too young to know that.)
They would also lead us in "We’ve got spirit, yes we do, we’ve got spirit, how about you?" shouted across the field to the opposing crowd and then they would do the same thing. Whoever was the loudest after a time won the contest.
The song-leaders had the pom-poms and actually did very modest dance routines. Usually the marching band, if the game was at home, or the traveling pep band if the game was away, played the music the song-leaders danced to. The song I remember best was 'On Wisconsin.'
These routines didn’t seem to take a great deal of physical skill so I just couldn’t see calling the old pep squad activities a sporting endeavor.
A very good friend of mine, Staci Cochiolo, used to argue with me about this pretty regularly when I was still teaching at St. Joseph High School. She had been an exceptional mathematics student of mine but she was also a cheerleader and a star softball player. She knew athletics from a player’s point of view, but she also had perspective as a cheerleader. Her experience should have counted for something, but I just dismissed it.
Staci went on to college and came back to St. Joseph as a cheer coach, a softball coach, a dance team coach and an outstanding mathematics teacher.
I probably should have believed her.
Then one day I saw some national stunt cheerleading competitions on television.
I was blown away as to the athleticism of the girls in the stunts they performed. The aerobatic tricks they did were amazing. The tumbling routines matched anything Olympic gymnasts did and they were frequently doing flips and twists while being thrown over 20 feet in the air, trusting to be caught by teammates on the ground.
I learned this wasn’t just college women doing these things but high school teams as well.
This is what Staci was trying to tell me.
A few years back I met a wonderful young woman, Gabriella Vega, who moved to California from New York to start her junior year in high school. She was one of these athletic cheerleaders. She helped transform St. Joseph's program into a much more dynamic group.
Being from New York she wasn’t afraid to state her opinion, and so when I challenged the notion of cheerleading being a sport, she quickly put me in my place. Their level of conditioning is unmatched by any traditional sport. They are regularly beat up, bruised and broken because what they do is flat out dangerous.
At just 21 years of age, Gabriella is now the coach of the competitive stunt cheerleading squad at Sacramento State University.
There is a young lady on my track team, Charlee Enos, who is probably the finest all-around female athlete I’ve ever coached. There are 16 events in track and Charlee has done 12 of them — and all pretty well. She is also a cheerleader. She does all of the dirty work — lifting, throwing, catching. You have to be quite an athlete to do all of that so I think that helps confirm it for me.
Staci and Gabriella and Charlee really educated me. I am a convert.
Cheerleading is a sport. Not only is it a sport, it is one of the most challenging, difficult and demanding sports out there.
So if anybody tells me that cheerleading isn’t a sport, to me now, "them’s fightin’ words."