Georgia Aspinall proves that cheerleading isn’t all pretty faces and dance moves.
Growing up watching Bring It On, I had a rather warped idea of what it meant to be a cheerleader- or so I thought.
British cheer isn’t exactly what you see on the big screen, but it’s not far off. The competitiveness, the non-stop training, the ridiculous hair, makeup and tanning rituals that makes you feel like you’re on Toddlers in Tiaras- it’s all too real when it comes to the world of University Cheer. I’d never cheered in my life before I tried out for Essex Flames, and I was pleasantly surprised when try-outs were no were near as terrifying as they seem on television. My dream of being Brooke Davis was almost complete when I made the team, before I remembered I wasn’t actually a nasty little bitch (pre-season three emotional epiphany – yes I will continue to reference One Tree Hill for as long as it remains in my heart… forever).
One thing I didn’t realise when I made the competitive team, was the cost. You know that the uniform will be pricey, and the shoes might add up, but it’s all the sneaky little extras. The spanx, the specific kind of sports bras, the bow and the extra makeup, never mind the endless supply of fake tan, hair grips and hairspray. If there’s one thing cheer is not, it’s cheap. Saying that, if a cheerleader from an elite all-star club reads this (I love you Cali Smoed), they’d probably laugh at how little I’ve had to pay compared to those who do it outside of schools and University. Travel costs alone can add up to thousands for those who commit their lives to it. I say this as someone who would fully follow in those footsteps if I was more flexible, could tumble perfectly without fear and generally wasn’t afraid of becoming paralysed or brain damaged at some point in my life.
“In the US, 66% of catastrophic sports-related injuries for women are from cheerleading.”
Yes, I said it, PARALYSED. This is the part where I blow your minds with a sneaky little fact most people really don’t realise when they think of cheerleading. It’s THE MOST DANGEROUS sport for women. In the US, 66% of catastrophic sports-related injuries for women are from cheerleading. You may now be picturing a screaming girl crying over her sprained ankle claiming “it’s a catastrophe!”. No. This is not Football; we’re not allowed to cry when we twist our ankles or sprain our wrists (insert passive aggressive smiley face). By catastrophe I mean major head and spine injuries that lead to permanent brain damage, paralysis or even death. Yep, death. I take these statistics from the Huffington Post who followed this line up with, “a bit of an anti-climax isn’t it?’’- oh how I love the condescending attitudes of people who think cheerleading isn’t a real sport. When you think about it, we shouldn’t really be surprised at the statistics. We throw girls above our heads, can catch them with just one hand, and tumble in formations that, if you’re not careful, will 100% lead to you being kicked in the head (I speak from personal experience, thanks Vanessa). I mean really, when I look at what some cheerleaders actually do in their routines, I’m baffled that the sport doesn’t impress other people as much as it does myself.
Fortunately, the Essex Flames haven’t had any catastrophic injuries this year, but that’s not to say we haven’t had half our team practically crawling onto the competition mat. We’ve had injuries going beyond the expected sprained ankle, bloody nose or busted lip. We’ve had tendons torn, elbows dislocated and back injuries that left one of our best tumblers fearing she’d be wheelchair bound. Did I mention this is all whilst still competing? If there’s one sure fire way to scare yourself out of doing cheer forever, just listen to these girls talk about their injuries. Not only that, injuries they take onto the competition mat with them, going against doctor’s advice and ending up in serious physiotherapy for months to a year. There’s no substitutes in cheer, no lying down crying when someone trips you up or running off when your tooth goes flying out your mouth (yes, that has happened) and definitely no missing competition- no matter what. Our girls compete despite internal bruising, concussions and arriving at competition on crutches… all whilst maintaining those perfect cheer facials.
Each stunt group consists of four to five people; one flyer, or the person being thrown about, two bases- the people doing most of the lifting, a back, the taller person stabilising the back of the stunt and a front, the person stabilising the front of the stunt. Every person in the team has an equally important, specific role in the routine and therefore substitutions (especially last minute ones) are near impossible. If you get injured in another sport, you’re easily substituted, on the bench until you feel up to another game. If you get injured in cheer, you cheekily wink at the judges and continue to smash your dance, tumble like an Olympian and stunt your arse off until you can eventually limp off the mat and cry. I’m not saying that we’re harder than all the other male sports on campus, but you know, the evidence does speak for itself…
Our head coach is the most experienced cheerleader in the squad and even she has had her fair share of injuries.
“I have cheered since I was in Grade 7 and the impact on my wrists and ankles have been really bad. I had to go for physiotherapy in Hong Kong [my hometown] for both my wrists and ankles, and my ankles are worse because they’ve basically been sprained so often that the ligaments are overstretched and they don’t sit right anymore”- Patricia Sarenas
So, with half of the squad in physiotherapy, walking on messed up ankles and lifting with dodgy wrists for most likely the rest of their lives, why do we still cheer? Honestly, it’s all for the competition. There’s nothing like going into warm up and getting that adrenaline rush, the feeling of smashing your routine and being rewarded for it, knowing that all those training sessions actually paid off. It’s a better feeling for me than anything else has given me at University (including that one time I got a first in an essay I did three hours before the deadline… first year please come back).
Another agonising thought? Not letting your team mates down. When you all work so hard for the entire year, there’s no way you can let your stunt group go on without a back for the sake of a sprained ankle. You can’t let them go through the stress of year round training, tanning until their orange and backcombing their quiff within an inch of its life just to stand in formation and not pull off that perfect single-leg heel stretch. See, I can understand why people get confused when I talk about backcombing hair alongside difficult stunts. There’s a strange other side to cheerleading, that isolates it from other sports by making the sportspeople who do it almost pageant like. You don’t see many sports where the competitors have to wear fake tan, a shit tonne of makeup and a sparkly bow to win first prize. Of course, that’s not all there is to it, but when all you see as the face of cheerleading is glittery makeup and a sparkly uniform it’s difficult to realise the true strength behind the sport. So I put it to you as a challenge, if you think Cheer isn’t a real sport, try out next year and see how hard we really work. I DARE YOU to tell me it’s not a real sport once you’ve attempted a cartwheel round-off back handspring without breaking a sweat.
The mat is all yours…