Cheering recruits members despite new rules

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By Laura Hettiger

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series about coach Stephanie Record and the Illinois cheerleading team.

Attaining the same level of respect every other varsity sport at Illinois receives is the main goal of each year’s cheerleading team. But the most recent problem for the University’s “Spirit Squad” is recruiting men for the team. Today’s cheerleading requires strong males to throw and catch the tiny girl “fliers,” as they are called in cheerleading lingo. This year, eight new male cheerleaders have joined the squad and tonight is the first time everyone is physically cleared to practice together.

“Dude, there are all kinds of benefits,” laughs Brad Engelbarts of his new cheerleading job. He is excited for early class registration, front-row seats to the football and basketball games, access to the Memorial Stadium weight room and to have something to belong to.

The team is working on basket tosses, one of the most dangerous yet crowd-pleasing “stunts” in college cheerleading. Four guys stand facing each other in a square position grasping one another’s wrists. Just now, a blonde freshman girl is the flier – the person torpedoed 25 feet in the air. As she gently places her feet onto the guys’ hands, the back spot counts, and everyone knows the general rule of “what goes up, must come down.” It is the guys’ job to catch what comes down.

Five, six, seven, eight.

With a grunt, the men launch the girl in unison. She flies into the air and falls back down, straightening her body as she falls so the men below her can properly catch. As the tiny girl slams back into the four guys’ arms, there is a loud crack – and an instant shot of blood. Engelbarts, the happy-go-lucky boy excited to be part of the team moments before, runs to the student trainer, lowers his hands showing her an inch long bleeding gash above his left eye.

“We did a basket toss, and when we caught her, I think we were just too concentrated on absorbing, like absorbing the catch,” Engelbarts said.

When he and the other guy on bottom caught the girl, both of them lunged forward and his partner’s chin sliced Brad’s forehead open. The trainer, a fifth-year senior in Kinesiology, forcefully presses a slab of white gauze on Brad’s cut and calls over her supervisor who concludes that Brad will need several stitches.

“Are you comfortable with driving yourself to the hospital?” the head athletic trainer yells over the buzz of the industrial fans. “You don’t have a concussion; you should be fine to drive.”

“Welcome to cheerleading,” Coach Record jokes to Brad. “Don’t quit!”

Labeled the “most dangerous sport in school” by the Journal of Pediatrics, today’s cheerleaders are flying higher, spinning quicker, tumbling stronger and jumping faster than ever before. In 2006, the same journal estimated 208,800 kids (ages 5 to 18) received treatment at a United States hospital for cheerleading-related injures from 1990 to 2002. Record watched cheerleading switch from “a cute girl in a skirt” to a multi-billion dollar mainstream, dangerous business.

“There was a stunt shift about 10 years ago,” recalls Record, watching her own athletes build pyramids that taunt the human body and seem to defy gravity. “It was a race to come up with the next new thing.”

Then on March 5, 2006, a Southern Illinois University cheerleader fell off a human pyramid onto the basketball court during the Missouri Valley Conference tournament final and college cheerleading came tumbling down.

Kristi Yamaoka, a second year member of the Salukis cheer team, fell backward 15 feet, ultimately breaking her neck and suffering a concussion. The fall was on national television, and it caused a furor. Even though it was Yamaoka who did the wrong thing, not her bases or “catchers,” the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Advisors imposed more than 50 new rules and restrictions on college cheerleading programs hoping to alleviate such catastrophic injuries. AACCA limited the difficulty of all stunts and made it “illegal” to do certain tumbling flips including fulls and double full twists. Although not allowed at the college level, most of the forbidden stunts can be seen in a high school gym.

Before AACCA stepped in, Record already knew the dangers of cheerleading. Two years ago, Record witnessed one of her own cheerleaders break his neck when attempting a back flip. In the two seasons since then, she has seen torn knee ligaments, broken ankles, arms and fingers, several shoulder surgeries, hernias, pulled muscles and numerous stitches.

The rule changes mainly affect the basketball season – a cheerleader’s prime opportunity to have an effect on the crowd. Record fears these rules are punishing the universities who do take safety seriously, whose coaches are AACCA certified and who strive for perfection and technique before difficulty.

“The guy athletes push the level of competition into cheerleading, too. It’s going to be harder to get guys and grow our program with these rules,” she said.

Record already sees her male cheerleaders getting frustrated. With the numerous restrictions on stunts, pyramids and high flying tosses, including no one-armed stunts or allowing girls to soar through the air, it will be hard to recruit strong, excited guys. Record is trying to keep her guys enthusiastic and has even cut back the hours in the gym to reduce frustration.

“We don’t want to burn the guys out.”

“Five, six, seven, eight,” the female cheer captain, Anne Fennell calls, signaling the group’s final standing back flip of the night. Jumping, flipping and landing in unison, the 15 female cheerleaders represent the team “togetherness” Record strives for.

After two and a half hours of running, yelling, jumping, tossing, flipping, squatting, flying and laughing, the Illinois Cheerleading Team calls it a night.

The next day, Record will do her same routine – go to work, plot new cheer pyramids, have dinner and rush off to cheer practice. She uses her same philosophy with coaching as she did when she was cheering.

“I’m committed,” she said. “I want people who are willing to come in here and give 110 percent each time.”

Through her struggles, minimal pay and decreased family time, Record would not change her opportunity to coach one of the largest cheer programs in the country for anything.