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Every weeknight during the fall term, at 5 p.m. sharp, just after the boys' wrestling team has finished stinking up the small gymnasium at Aurora's Eaglecrest High, members of the school's varsity competitive cheerleading squad can enter the room and start practicing. Eaglecrest's cheerleaders have accomplished the school's greatest athletic achievement by winning the state championship for five of the past six years.
The year they lost, 1996, still seems like yesterday in the mind of the team's coach, Gwen Hansen-Vigil. That year, Hansen-Vigil says, one of her girls performed while injured and flubbed a stunt. The team still placed second, but as Hansen-Vigil notes with a touch of amusement, "We missed it by only one one-hundredth of a point."
"It's not like other sports, where you can make mistakes and come back later in the game," she adds. "You get two minutes and thirty seconds on the mat -- that's it. You get one shot at it, and that's it."
Tonight, on a chilly Monday night in early December, Hansen-Vigil's team is polishing their fast-paced routine for the 2000 State Spirit Championship, just five days away. The scene inside the small gym looks much like any other grouping of athletes: a few girls sport knee braces and ankle supports; sweat is running from everyone's foreheads; breaks for water are necessary.
It may look like a grouping of athletes, but technically, it isn't.
According to the U.S. Department of Education and its Office of Civil Rights (OOCR), cheerleading is not a sport that is included under Title IX, the federal regulation that requires public schools to give equal access and funding to male and female athletes. Instead, cheerleading is considered a "support activity."
Yet as early as next year, that may change. Beginning in January, Colorado, along with some 26 other states, will renew its efforts to convince the federal government that cheerleading is more than just synchronized pom-pom waving. If the OOCR agrees, then the world will have to recognize cheerleaders as athletes. And considering that there are about 100,000 competitive cheerleaders in the country, budgets for high school sports departments could get puffed up overnight, as if they had been injected with fast-acting steroids.
In order to even things out, then, schools like Eaglecrest, which claims 48 cheerleaders, could hypothetically need to add 48 athletic spots for boys' sports -- maybe even create a new team, like boys' volleyball. But some critics of cheerleaders, and of the cheerleaders-are-athletes argument, insist that the girls are still nothing more than eye candy on the periphery.
Eaglecrest senior Jo Jo Small, who used to compete as an ice-skater, has few doubts that she is an athlete, despite the government's definition. "I love this sport," she says. "We do it for the competitive drive and the bonds we develop as teammates -- not just so we can prance around in our little skirts and cheer for a bunch of guys."
This year, Small and the rest of the Eaglecrest girls were attempting to defend their state title and maintain their place atop the pyramid of 33 other wannabe squads. Hansen-Vigil, who is a student of coaching and has read her John Wooden well, says keeping her team number one is the greatest challenge. "I was a much healthier coach when we weren't defending a title."
As the hour-and-a-half practice winds down, Hansen-Vigil says she's not really concerned with a weak spot in the girls' routine, but she notices that their enthusiasm level is dragging. The girls aren't "making the little things, like walking, look exciting."
In scoring competitive cheerleading, judges tally "showmanship" as ten points of the possible one hundred. The judges consider four criteria: confidence, facial expression, energy level and eye contact. Yet Hansen-Vigil says that those measly ten points are going to make the difference between this year's champion and this year's runner-up.
The exhausted girls rest on the mats for a few moments, then gather around Hansen-Vigil in a semi-circle on the floor. The coach leans back and takes a low-key but serious tone with her team.
"It's my fear," she says, "that you all don't understand how important it is for all of you, all of the time, to show your enthusiasm and high energy level. It is extremely important that all of you smile all of the time."
Cheerleading has been in this country for more than one hundred years, but competitive cheerleading in Colorado didn't get off the ground until the early '80s, when cheerleaders began incorporating gymnastics and tumbling into their routines.
Before then, cheerleading was officially registered in schools as an activity or club. In the mid-'80s, Hansen-Vigil was a cheerleader at Doherty High School in Colorado Springs, where she performed on a squad that did little more than clap hands in unison and chant rhymes. At that time, cheerleading competitions did not include ceiling-scraping tosses, and teams weren't ranked by sequence of superiority. Instead, a few top teams received a "superior" badge from judges, a handful of teams were deemed "excellent," and the rest were "outstanding." In other words, everybody won.
It's not clear exactly when or where the cosmic shift in a cheerleader's identity from simple supporter to active performer took place. But in the early '90s, ESPN began televising national college competitions. In 1993, according to the National Cheerleading Association, 27,000 high school girls were counted as "competitive cheerleaders." This year that number has more than tripled. (At this year's Colorado state championship, a record 191 teams -- in cheer, pom-pom, and jazz-dance categories -- performed at the tournament, up from 86 at the beginning of the decade.)