It’s Saturday afternoon and while other high school teens are hitting the mall or getting ready for the homecoming dance, the Senior Level Three Airborne cheerleaders from Sonoma County are getting ready to compete in the Nor Cal Victory Cup in Sacramento. It’s around 2 p.m. when coach Bryan Chu arrives at the house of 17-year-old Chanel Salinas in Corte Madera, and it’s clear she’s excited to compete. After brief greetings, Bryan, Chanel and her teammate Emma Reese pile into Salinas’ black SUV. They spend the 2-and-a-half-hour drive listening to the competition song, as well as various dance mixes, and reviewing the routine’s hand movements. Despite this being the team’s first competition, the girls are confident and hopeful.
For years, cheerleaders have battled various stereotypes, being classified as “preppy,” “ditsy” or unintelligent, and generally, not athletes. Despite negative labels, cheerleading continues to prosper, and with every back-flip and high-kick, cheerleaders strive to make a difference. There are approximately 3.4 million cheerleaders in the United States. As the popularity of cheerleading continues to grow, the question of whether it is a legitimate sport is a rising issue. After accepting 33 sports, including shooting and table tennis, the International Olympic Committee has yet to recognize cheerleading as a sport. One would assume cheerleading would be accepted if not for its sheer physicality, at least for its combination of two already established disciplines: dance and gymnastics. John Hebert, owner of Power Gym and host of Nor Cal Victory Cup, has been working with the National Collegiate Athletic Association to classify cheerleading as an emerging sport and with the International Cheer Union on forming different levels.
“There’s competitive, like club, there’s the international business and then we also have Team USA versus Team Mexico, things like that,” described Hebert, “So as it’s going along, we still have a few things to do, on our side, to legitimize it even more on rules and ethics and things like, making a credentialing process, an actual defined season of dates, tracking kids and athletes, but it’s definitely heading in the direction of being a legitimate sport.”
Chu, Reese and Salinas arrive at Memorial Auditorium to find dozens of groups showing off their striking ensembles as they proudly practice their lifts, hasten to apply glitter and adjust their ponytails, bows and poofs. As they struggle to find a parking space, about 1,800 cheerleaders of all ages and 2,700 spectators invade the streets of downtown Sacramento excitedly and nervously searching for their teams. While the day goes by slowly with stretches, warm-ups and practices, the last hour before performing is filled with grueling anticipation and anxiety. With every step closer to the stage, the tension mounts; the girls know that just one minor misstep could mean points lost. As another team is called to the stage, the girls nervously wait to perform. Their once confident faces now cringe with anxiety. The girls are on deck; Chu calls for a huddle and a last minute pep talk. “Please, welcome to the stage Airborne Small Senior Level Three!” A deep breath and the curtains open.
It is unclear as to when the first cheer took place, but when it began to mature in the early 20th century it was an activity consisting of mostly males. It wasn’t until the 1920s that women became involved and began to incorporate gymnastics and dance. As the NCAA works to legitimize cheer as both a national and international sport, there are still those who continue to deny the athleticism of cheerleading.
“I don’t think cheerleading has more athleticism than sports like basketball and football. These are sports where you’re always running for a longer period of time,” said Folsom High football player Nick Carr, 15, from El Dorado Hills. “I think it could become a sport but it shouldn’t be held to the same level as sports like football or basketball.”
The Airborne cheerleaders run out from behind the curtain waving at the spectators. The auditorium roars with cheering, screaming and whistling. Family members jump up and down with signs with their daughter’s name. The girls get into place, and the music begins. As the rookies stumble through their routine, they complete some impressive back flips and lifts. After a two-minute routine, the audience applauds and the girls look relieved and proud-while mistakes were made, they were happy to get through their first competition and cease their nerves.
Cheerleading has often been denied as a physical discipline and consistently mocked, often by movies, TV shows and fellow athletes. Hollywood frequently presents cheerleaders as the antagonist of the story, often dumb or evil. The way cheerleaders look makes a difference said Reese. Besides tackling the numerous lifts and acrobatics, they also are responsible for putting on a show. Cheerleaders do their hair and wear make-up, skirts and glitter. People see the glamour and forget how much athleticism is involved, and that most cheerleaders must maintain a B average to stay on the team.
“I’ve been cheerleading on and off for three years. Everyone has really good energy. I’ve done so many sports and been on so many teams, and this is by far the hardest work I’ve done,” said Salinas. “It looks easy because we do it so well and the only people who really get it are the other people on the team and other cheerleaders. I could ask any football player to come and do what I do and I bet most would be dumbfounded.”
The Airborne cheerleaders didn’t win the competition, but they left with smiles on their faces knowing that they did their best and would continue to practice. It wasn’t about taking home a bright and shiny trophy; it was about showing people what they could do-that behind all the glitter and make-up, lies a strong girl and a serious athlete. Besides, there’s always next year.
Ivanna Quiroz is a journalism student at San Francisco State University and hopes to one day work at a magazine. Read more of her work at http://shrkbait.tumblr.com/.