Three Cheers for Cheerleaders!
Anthony Camera

Three Cheers for Cheerleaders!

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.)

Not everyone is ready to put cheerleading in a new category, however. As Mariah Burton Nelson, author, former professional basketball player and national lecturer on the roles of women, sports and society, points out, "Even though it requires athletic skill, discipline and practice, cheerleading is not a sport, because cheerleaders function primarily on the sideline -- they are not the main event. When they compete against other cheerleaders in a separate event, then it becomes a dance or gymnastics competition -- and it should be called something other than cheerleading, because at that moment, no one is being cheered for."

What's more, Burton Nelson continues, "Title IX was created to give girls other opportunities beyond cheerleading. If cheerleaders count as athletes under Title IX, that means there will be that many fewer opportunities for girls to play basketball, volleyball or field hockey. It would allow school administrators to justify an imbalance in other female sports."

Rhonda Blanford-Green is the assistant commissioner for the Colorado High School Activities Association and the state's main cheerleader for cheerleaders. She graduated from Aurora's Central High School in 1981, where she was both a cheerleader (she keeps a black-and-white photo of herself in uniform taped to her computer) and a track star. She attended the University of Nebraska on an athletic scholarship and came within two one-hundredths of a second of making the 1988 U.S. Olympic team in the 100-meter hurdles. Next month she'll host a panel in preparation for the state's argument to the Department of Education.

Blanford-Green says that in Colorado, cheerleaders are already held to the same academic and eligibility requirements as school athletes such as football players. An Eaglecrest cheerleader spends between twelve and fifteen hours practicing per week and an additional four or five hours cheering at sporting events. Add to that monthly competitions on the weekends, and a cheerleader could potentially log more hours in a week than most other athletes on campus.

"As a state, we have to take the lead on this and tell the [federal government] what we want," Blanford-Green says. "We're going to have everything in place -- a schedule, rules, policies -- so they can look at us and say, 'Yes, cheerleading is a sport, and cheerleaders are athletes.'"

So far, Blanford-Green hasn't met any in-state resistance to her cause. Schools with larger cheerleading squads are eager to add the girls to the sports budget (and possibly beef up their football program), and schools with smaller squads are eager for recognition. And while she's satisfied that today's cheerleaders are deserving of a new recognition, she wonders if the administrators and students are ready for it.

"I see a reversal in the perception of cheerleaders taking place, but it's hard to do it overnight, especially from a faculty standpoint," Blanford-Green says. "Most high school athletic directors are men, now in their forties, who were athletes when they were in high school. Their perception of what a cheerleader is is still based on what they held when they were in high school. For them to see these girls as athletes is very hard."

Getting the feds, and the courts, to see the girls as athletes has proved difficult as well. Typically, Title IX has been challenged at the collegiate level, where sports budgets are well into the multimillion-dollar range. But recently, legal squabbles have been coming from both high schools and middle schools.

In July, high school cheerleaders seeking recognition won a minor legal tangle in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Parents of two cheerleaders sued Holdenville Public Schools and demanded that their daughters get the same access to coaches, locker rooms and travel expenses as recognized school athletes. Although lawyers for the school district initially argued that cheerleading was not a sport, they later agreed to a back-bending settlement. In the end, the cheerleaders received all the amenities of other athletes, including a few new lockers, once they agreed to take on the eligibility requirements of athletes.

"Cheerleading has typically not been a sport under Title IX," the school's attorney, Karen Long, told a newspaper. "But I expect this case to be a trendsetter."

Still, Burton Nelson contends that this kind of nibbling at Title IX and its acceptance into the mainstream is going to unravel the intentions of the original mandate. Giving cheerleaders recognition as athletes, she says, will not make it so: "If it is legitimatized as a sport, that will return us to the old system, where boys are athletes and girls are seen as sexy, trivial, cute, supportive playthings on the sidelines."

Jo Jo Small has been a cheerleader at Eaglecrest for four years. "If it weren't for cheerleading, I wouldn't be at Eaglecrest," she says. Jo Jo's younger sister chose to attend another high school, and the two cheerleaders engage in a bit of sibling rivalry.

Last year -- Jo Jo's first with the varsity competitive team -- she felt vindicated when the team won the state championship. "I needed to prove to the other girls, especially the older ones, that I belonged on the team." This year she wants to help the team win so that she can "help give the younger girls a taste -- to show them that it's all worth it."

Jo Jo doesn't have a background in gymnastics or tumbling, like some of the other girls. She competed in a sport known as precision ice-skating -- synchronized swimming on ice with about 21 girls -- and her team won the national championship. Her tiny frame, fearlessness and athleticism make her a prototypical "flyer," one of the girls flung into the air during cheerleading routines. At practices, when Hansen-Vigil asks for feedback, Jo Jo is repeatedly the first person to pipe up. She also, perhaps unconsciously, drifts away from the team's semi-circles and resting moments, and she often stretches farthest from the group.

Her relationship with her coach ("I've got her number on my speed dial") is so close that she gets teased by her teammates as being the "suckup." Yet no one on her squad questions Jo Jo's commitment or her passion for cheerleading. The license plate on her car reads "CHERLDR."

"This team is my whole life," she says. "Every girl on this team is like my best friend. Outside of cheerleading, I don't feel complete. When I come in here and's the highlight of my day."

On the night of December 8, the Denver Coliseum is as keyed up with rambunctious teenage fans as it would be for a state football championship. Outside, you can tell it's a high school event from all the breakneck driving going on and the parking lot filled with highly decorated vehicles. One monster 4-x-4 truck rumbles by with the license plate "ITSALGD."

Inside, there are about 2,000 cheerleaders and about 8,000 proud parents, administrators, brothers and sisters. The Eaglecrest section is also filled with cheerleaders and parents from years past.

Since only one cheerleading team can be on the floor at a time, the tournament is a long, drawn-out game of waiting, waiting, and more waiting. The first time Eaglecrest performs, in the preliminary round, is at 3:24 p.m. Now they'll have to bide their time until nearly 8 p.m. to find out if they'll perform in the finals round.

The preliminary round is considered such a shoe-in for Eaglecrest that the girls overlook its importance. In the first minute of their performance, three girls building a base clumsily bump into each other while lifting up their flyer. Once they try to correct their mistake, they overcompensate, then fall apart and drop their airborne teammate to the mat. At the end of the routine, Jo Jo looks wobbly in the final pyramid, but only an eagle-eyed judge might notice. When the girls run off the mat, there are shrieks, hugs and tears -- a tradition that every team at the tournament shares as they exit the floor, win or lose.

But the Eaglecrest girls are crying because they're afraid of getting knocked out in the first round. To make things worse, they'll have to wait four and a half hours to learn their fate.

Most of the girls have brought sleeping bags and homework to pass the time. The seating section they've taken over resembles the morning after a slumber party. Jo Jo, however, brings nothing to the tournaments. She gets too antsy to do anything, she says. She can't concentrate on homework. She paces, walks around, stays fidgety.

After more than three hours, the wait is getting to her. All afternoon, her teammates have been quizzing each other, talking to other cheerleaders, keeping an eye on the competition. Despite Hansen-Vigil's suggestions otherwise, some of the girls admit it's impossible not to check out the competition on the mat. Hansen-Vigil's husband, the team's unofficial spy at the competition, has assured the girls their mistakes weren't appalling. "He's a good judge for that stuff," Jo Jo says, "so I trust him."

With just fifteen minutes to go, Jo Jo's intensity is turning into fear of the worst. She says if the team doesn't get into the finals, she and the rest of the squad will hear all about it at school. "There's a lot of pressure right now. Everyone at school is like," -- here she does an impersonation of a dopey teenage boy -- "'You better win the title.'" She shakes her head and exhales.

Jo Jo has a pillow folded over in her arms. Her face is blank. She offers, "I don't know what I'll do if we don't get into finals." She thinks it over for a few good seconds. "I'll just be really, really mad."

A few minutes later, the judges are ready to announce their decision. Only four teams will advance to the finals. The Eaglecrest girls gather in their section and hold hands. They've never prayed so hard just to get past the preliminary round. After the judge lists the first three squads, they tighten their grip. "And in fourth place," the judge says. Pause. "Eagle --"

The girls scream themselves right out of their chairs.

About the time the results are posted, the chatter starts to circle the Coliseum: Eaglecrest got into the finals on their rep, not their performance.

The first-place team, Fruita Monument, scored a 90, Cherry Creek an 89, and Standley Lake an 88. Eaglecrest squeaked in with an 87. One tournament official, who declined to give her name, said, "If they weren't Eaglecrest, they wouldn't have gotten in. No way, no way, no way. The team after them? They got robbed."

Hansen-Vigil wouldn't validate the claim. "There are always going to be those people who say that kind of thing. But we had the routine. Even though we fell, we still had a tight routine. In the end, judges are going to judge you for what you do, not what you don't do."

While they get ready for the finals, Hansen-Vigil doesn't let her girls watch the competition. This is unique, because all of the other squad members, like the teenage girls that they are, continually gaze at their competitors. They walk together in pairs, trade glances at other girls, look back as they pass each other. Instead, the Eaglecrest team members stay off by themselves, in an area where no else will bother them.

Just as she does before every performance, Hansen-Vigil leads the team through a regimen of preparation exercises. First the girls gather around a boombox, lying on their backs -- right foot over left, hands entwined on their chests -- close their eyes, and visualize their entire routine as the music plays. This causes stares and freaky glances from girls on the teams that have already been eliminated.

Next, Hansen-Vigil hands out pieces of paper with the numbers 1 through 100 written on them in random order. She'll call out a number -- eleven, in this case -- and the girls are to locate it on the page, then find the rest of the numbers in sequence. As they count, whispering the numbers to themselves, they are focused and concentrated, oblivious to the noisy chaos that swirls around them.

When they are finished counting, they stretch, breathe and walk through the routine.

Then they are ready to perform.

For the finals, Cherry Creek's team cheered well but out of sync, and they visibly wobbled the final stackup. Standley Lake made the fatal mistake of dropping a flyer, and the immediate body language of the team suggested they had dropped the entire world.

Fruita Monument, however, put together a clean, crowd-rousing routine, one that the Eaglecrest girls heard but never saw.

As Eaglecrest circles up at the tunnel entrance to the floor, Jo Jo is still pacing around the periphery of the group, kicking her knees up and tapping them, bouncing around. When their team is finally announced, the girls hold hands and wait.

Two of the squad's cheerleaders, dressed in their black, red and white uniforms, walk out to the center stage at a determined slow pace and put their Eaglecrest signs at either edge of the mat. To the cheers of an eager crowd, the two girls walk all the way back to the tunnel entrance, meet up with the rest of their team and walk all the way back to the mat. If they are trying to show that they own the floor, they're doing a good job. The Fruita Monument girls, dressed in all-blue uniforms, cling to the side of the Coliseum and watch closely. Their made-up faces say "Get on with it."

Hansen-Vigil is up in the sound booth, getting ready to press the "play" button when her girls are ready.

The music is a blast of high-energy rock, punk and rap. A tease from a Nirvana grunge riff and a tease from Mötley Crüe's "Kick Start My Heart" blare the girls into formation. From the start, it's clear that they are tight. In the first major stunt, Jo Jo gets launched into the air, hits the zenith some fifteen feet above the mat, arches her back for effect, then drops back to earth. It's flawless. The crowd erupts with shrieks of approval.

A few seconds later, all four of the flyers are being held up by their respective tripods and, like tiny ballerinas balancing on the head of a pin, simultaneously bring their legs into a graceful arabesque. They hold their pose for a frozen second, and the educated crowd shouts its approval. From there, all four flyers jump from their perches, spin their bodies twice, and land in their teammates' arms.

Once everyone's feet are back on the mat, it's cake from here: a series of cheers and synchronized dancing. The rule book says performances with "provocative movements" will be docked at the judges' discretion. The closest Eaglecrest gets to this definition is in their dance sequence, when the girls line up, turn their right hips out toward the judges, then slap them twice and grunt twice in unison, military style. The move is quick and is not considered by any of the judges to be "provocative."

A male cheerleader from the University of Colorado squad who is watching the Eaglecrest performance takes notice of the girls' synchronization and sighs, "They're sooo awesome."

In the finale, the pyramid gets thrown up in a nanosecond and sticks cleanly. Jo Jo shares the top, stage left. Even though she had to wrap one ankle with extra tape, she shows no signs of weakness. The crowd is screaming like they are on fire. After the pyramid, the music ends, and the girls shout, "Eaglecrest!"

The girls dislodge and start jumping, cheering and crying on the mat as they wave to their parents, judges and friends. Hansen-Vigil comes running down from the booth. The Fruita Monument girls clap and offer a few compliments as the cheerleaders leave the mat in tears: "Good job, you guys! Good job!"

Julie, an Eaglecrest cheerleader, leads the team off the mat and quickly finds a trash can to puke in. It happens at every performance, she says.

Hansen-Vigil is ecstatic. The girls showed the smiles and enthusiasm in spades. One of her assistants pumps a fist and says with assurance, "That was it! That was it!"

After releasing herself from the crush of elation, Jo Jo runs over, and in an oh-my-god exhilarated voice says, "Quote me on this: No matter what happens, that was the greatest cheer of our lives."

When the judges are ready to announce the winner, the other teams gather near the trophy table and sit down in powwow circles. As is the custom at cheerleading competitions, the place erupts in a sort of cheer-down, where, one by one, the most spirited teams offer one last look at their stuff.

The Eaglecrest girls sit on the floor, near a row of seats promptly filled by family members. As the cheering goes on, the girls add some volume to the cacophony, then gradually calm down and wait with the rest of the audience.

Hansen-Vigil is standing with her assistant coaches and clutching her infant daughter. Her daughter pops free for a few seconds, and when the judge declares that's he prepared to announce the 5A division winner, Hansen-Vigil tugs her daughter back into her arms and lets out an "Oh, God." She looks over at her girls and smiles.

"In second place," the judge's voice booms around the stadium, "Eaglecrest."

There's silence. The girls are stunned -- the judge said it so quickly.

Then they react. They clap, cheer. One of them stands up and goes to retrieve the trophy.

Hansen-Vigil holds her daughter and gives her assistants a "How about that?" look.

When the trophy gets back to the circle and the girls wait to hear who beat them, they pass the piece of wood around and kiss it, one by one, as is the Eaglecrest tradition.

Hansen-Vigil goes to the floor to meet her girls, some of who are starting to tear up. The knee braces and strips of ankle tape have already been torn off and tossed into their gear bags. The perspiration has already dried. The countless hours of practice are far from their minds. Hansen-Vigil has to remind them that sportsmanship dictates that they go over and congratulate the girls from Fruita Monument.

"Remember how you felt when you came off the mat?" their coach asks. "You did a great job. You couldn't have done better. You should be proud of yourselves."

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