Smells Like Teen Spirit
Inside the hard and happy lives of Memphis high school cheerleaders.
By Ashley Fantz
FEBRUARY 28, 2000: Standing perfectly stiff with clenched fists, their eyes crinkling at the corner, Craigmont High School's cheerleaders are mannequins of spirit. Except for an unusually chilly Orlando breeze swatting their bowed ponytails, no one budges until the music kicks in.
They're counting to themselves 1, 2, 3, 4. Guys get a firm grip on a few girls' sides and pop them into the air, balancing the girls' legs like bowling pins wobbling in their palms. Limbs explode in jerky toe-touches revealing glimpses of their maroon polyester underpants. Human pogo sticks, one girl goes up, another comes down.
Tanned and taut bellies -- some adorned with navel rings -- flip back. 1, 2, 3, 4. No-hand tucks -- four in a row.
"Facials, people, facials!" their coach yells.
They smile wider, so broad their faces could split. One has a deep-purple, hand-size bruise caused by repeatedly slapping her thighs when she bounces. Sticking out their tongues and bobbing their heads ferociously, they give a capital letter and exclamation point to each word in the Craigmont fight cheer.
"Chiefs, maroon and white. Fight, Chiefs, Fight! C'mon crowd, yell 'C'!"
"Facials, now, facials! Keep them faces smiling!"
"Let's hear it, 'H'!"
"Great!," the coach interjects. "Misty, louder!"
"Now 'S'! C'mon crowd, yell it loud! C ... H ... S!"
"Excellent! Yes! You threw it! Y'all are on it! This squad's ready!"
Welcome to the cheerleading capital of America. At the National Cheerleading Championship held recently in Orlando, Florida, Shelby County was represented by no fewer than nine different schools. Five area schools finished in the top-three of their divisions. Memphis has dominated the competition for years. But few understand the price paid by these teenagers to be the best.
"Cheerleading isn't something you just fall into," says Cayla Johnson, a member of the Germantown squad and a cheerleader since the 7th grade. "It's not like you can just walk on without having years of tumbling. You just gotta want it real bad. You have to be willing to sacrifice a bunch if you want to say you're number-one."
Johnson sits on the gym floor of Christian Brothers High School while girls in matching T-shirts and shorts scurry around her. It's the first day into the junior's Christmas break. Her squad sponsor had called her at home to tell her that an ESPN camera crew was coming to film teams that have consistently captured championship titles. The sports channel knew they could complete the assignment in one city: Memphis. There's a running joke among competition officials that they should just move the event from Orlando to Tennessee.
Schools send performance tapes to competition officials much like the TV show Star Search. If they make the cut, they're headed to the promised land. Orlando is their Mecca, where a year's worth of sweat, bruises, and verbal lashings from coaches are forgotten for a chance to be recognized as the greatest cheerleaders in the world.
Kiley Graves, a Germantown junior, is a compact gymnast and a Dominique Dawes lookalike. Like most of her squadmates, Graves is more intent on finishing in the top-five than winning the competition. Winning would be a miracle, she says, with the competition Germantown is up against. If no one falls, their routine will be a success.
"Orlando is like the highlight we work all year for," she says, repeatedly folding the top of her white sock until it matches the other. "We still like to get the crowd involved at games, but competing makes it seem like a sport and it is a sport."
Germantown cheerleaders have joined the CBHS co-ed squad for ESPN's visit. CBHS won first place in 1999 for the fifth consecutive year. Scattered on a gymnastic mat, they practice back-flip after back-flip. Some quietly whisper cheers, moving their arms like airplane traffic controllers. Tiffany Hays, a petite freshman, is hoisted into the air to sit atop the steady hand of one of CBHS's seven male cheerleaders, gracefully completing the most basic stunt: "the chair."
Smiling, Hays seems satisfied -- but for every perfect toss, cheer, or stiff-armed salute to spirit, the CBHS squad will not begin practicing in earnest for another month. Cheerleading will take over their lives in January with eight-hour practices on Saturdays, equally grueling Sundays, and weekdays without breaks between school and home.
"Okay, what I need from all you girls is big smiles," says the ESPN cameraman. "Try to hit your routines and keep faces bright."
CBHS coach Chris Darby calls the squad over for a huddle. A revered coach for his ability to both joke and discipline his cheerleaders, he offers his trademark sarcasm.
"Yell everyone's name, give them encouragement," he urges. "I don't care if you don't know someone's name, just make one up."
CBHS goes over their mix -- a series of techno screeches and digitized whoops introduced by Will Smith's Millennium single. "It's here and I like it!"
Backflipping in unison, they continue cheering loud enough to crack the gym walls. Pumped by the applause from Germantown cheerleaders, they quickly shimmy into a "cheer-a-mid," a human "M" of wobbling limbs.
The first time Germantown junior Tracy Geelan saw the University of Memphis cheerleaders, she was mesmerized.
"I just thought it looked so cool, everybody together and sharp," she says. "It looked physically attractive to me, but, you know, it looked athletic. I've tried other sports. There's nothing tougher than this."
Geelan's mother, Becky, took her daughter to tumbling class when she was three. "A lot of people were saying that was a good way to help them with early coordination and muscle development," she explains.
Geelan cheered for one of Germantown's Youth Athletic Association's "diaper squads," a group of toddlers in short, pleated skirts. The non-competitive squads perform cheer recitals, inspiring cooing awes from parents -- some of whom have spent up to $500 or more for uniforms and accessories. By junior high, the teams are real and the tryouts are fierce. Without tumbling talent, you got no game. For that, you go to Jeff Webb.
Considered a wizard in the spirit industry, the former University of Oklahoma cheerleader started Universal Cheerleading Association and Varsity Spirit Corporation in the mid-70s. Working out of his apartment, he had a vision of cheerleading's future. Today the multi-million-dollar company headquartered in Memphis caters to about seven million cheerleaders, mostly in the South. It all started with three components: camps, merchandise, competitions.
Cheerleaders go to the camps where they learn UCA's distinct cheerleading style of clean, linear movement highlighted by expert tumbling. Varsity designs and sells uniforms, bags, pom-poms, T-shirts. And Varsity sponsors the competitions.
The business didn't bloom until Webb hooked up with a friend who was starting a small cable network called ESPN. Few saw the first cheerleading competition in 1984. Today, with the addition of ESPN 2, it's broadcast to about 140 million homes. During peak camp months -- March through August -- UCA employs 50 operators at its Germantown office to answer calls from across the nation.
"We define what cheerleading is," says Webb. "We took it from something that was kind of dull and traditional and made it a visual spectacle."
Webb judges the Orlando championships and says that squads are expected to step up their stunting difficulty to remain competitive.
"But that's not to say that safety standards, which we set, shouldn't be followed," he says. "If there's a stunt performed and it looks like a spotter missed being there or something wasn't exactly right, that hurts how well they score."
Tumbling is often taught at camps, but Memphis cheerleaders go where they can get year-round training -- at Todd Gangwish's Cheerleader Training Center.
A former cheerleader for the University of Wyoming, Gangwish opened the center -- the first of its kind in the country -- 11 years ago.
"A lot of parents send their kids to me so that they won't have their hearts broken later at try-outs," Gangwish says.
Nearby, on a foam mat half the size of a football field, a cluster of third-graders run through their routine, some wiggling their rear ends to the funk blasting from a boom box.
Their playground smiles don't seem many years away from Craigmont's winning "facials."
In the back, an 11-year-old girl bounces on a trampoline, landing face first and stiff bodied on its netting. She turns mid-air and continues flipping, flipping, flipping with a full twist finale.
"One thing about cheerleading -- it's year-round," Gangwish says. "That's a lot of stress on the body. You'll see a lot of girls on squads who have their ankle or knees wrapped. Most of the time that's for support. But it's easy to get injured cheerleading and stunting. A coach has to know how much their cheerleaders individually can handle."
CBHS: 17 members, 11 wrapped ligaments. Germantown: 20 members, 14 wrapped ligaments.Craigmont: 21 members, 6 wrapped ligaments.
Most squads arrive in Orlando at least three days before the official showdown. Immediately after they are bused from the airport, the squads -- many like the Germantown team clutching stuffed animals in the likeness of their school mascot -- are ushered into an orientation tent and cautioned not to practice on concrete. If they can't find soft ground, a Disney gym is available for $30 a day. CBHS takes the gym offer and disappears for three days.
Mother of a Germantown cheerleader, Mary Simkin watches the freshman squad practice on a grassy area outside their Disney hotel. "It's amazing the kind of passion cheerleaders have," she says. "Last year a girl on the Germantown varsity did four back tucks with a broken ankle. She didn't have it looked at until she got back to Memphis. I mean, how driven is that?"
CBHS cheerleader Alaina Burford has chronic ankle pain. Even though her doctors have warned her to lighten her cheering load, Burford refuses.
"It'll stop when I stop cheering," she says. "They say stop, but as long as I can stand it ... . It really depends on the day how bad it is. It doesn't matter though because I love cheerleading."
Amanda Maynard, a Germantown flyer -- one who's thrown and stands on top of other cheerleaders -- always carries a tube of sports creme and tape. She's had ankle pain for years from cheerleading and tumbling.
"If you're a gymnast, you gotta expect that's something you have to deal with," she says.
Germantown coach Chris Crabtree spends about 20 minutes before practice taping ankles, knees, and wrists.
"These girls' injuries aren't bad," he says. "If they were bad we wouldn't let them cheer. I'm legally responsible for them. They have to bring a note from their doctor saying they can do it. They are intelligent; they know what their limits are."
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Barry Brent Phillips sees about three cheerleaders a week for ligament and joint injuries; a few of them are on his daughter Candace's Germantown freshman squad. He says most cheerleaders suffer from "overuse" injuries ranging from short-term tendinitis to the athletic kiss of death, a torn ACL.
"Most often if you tell a girl -- no matter how much pain she's in or how bad the injury is -- that she's not going to have permanent damage, she'll see if she can continue cheering," Phillips says. "That's when you have to determine not whether she's injured, but how significant the injury is."
Candace was treated for an elbow injury when she fell during a back hand-spring in the seventh grade.
"I was really surprised to see how much they practice," says her father. "Six days a week and then she goes to tumbling class twice a week. I understand the commitment, but I think they could decrease some of the practice time. It's too intense."
A 1999 University of North Carolina study found that cheerleading is responsible for nearly half the high school and college injuries that lead to paralysis or death. Most of the injuries occur during practice.
Last year, a Minnesota cheerleader sued her school after three squadmates tossed her and dropped her on her head. She blamed the squad's young, inexperienced coaches for not teaching proper safety techniques. In New Hampshire, a 16-year-old cheerleader suffered a skull fracture and now has permanent mental disabilities.
One of the worst injuries on record happened in 1988 when a girl was paralyzed from the waist down after she was tossed and attempted a back-flip in mid-air onto a shoulder stand. She slipped and severed her spinal cord.
UCA offers workshops, sends out newsletters, and hosts thousands of cheer camps around the country teaching safer ways to stunt.
"Anyone who's injured should not be performing," Webb says. "Once a squad leaves our camp, we don't have any control over what they do. I would agree that there are instances, although this is the minority, when coaches are too young and push kids too hard."
Standing on the sidelines of the Disney All Star Sports tennis court where Germantown has been practicing for two hours, Jan Boyd and Becky Geelan watch their daughters. Each has spent a lot of money to put Nicole Boyd and Tracy Geelan through tumbling lessons and years of cheerleading -- most parents, even with the help of fund-raisers, shell out between $3,000 and $5,000 a year to keep up with their children's cheerleading ambitions. The costs add up quickly with weeklong camps, matching outfits at camps and competitions, private trainers, tumbling lessons and uniforms -- most of which are not complete without pricey warm-up suits.
"It's all worth it," says Becky Geelan. "She's learned teamwork. I mean, these girls depend on each other. If one doesn't show up to a practice, then the whole thing's ruined. That's why a lot of girls might practice when they are a little hurt. And Tracy has really learned time management."
"To say one day that you were a national champion," says Jan Boyd. "Is something that no one can take away from Nicole."
Boyd says she has "planned her life" around cheerleading, taking Nicole to visit colleges the summer before her senior year because cheerleading would occupy most of the school year. Nicole will attend Pepperdine next year.
Geelan, who was recently laid off from a hotel job, says she can now spend more time with Tracy.
"We live it together," she says. "We talk about practice during dinner. I go to every football game. I even go to her gymnastic classes or drive her there. I don't have to; I want to. There are always going to be people who are down on it, but we don't let that bother us."
Geelan takes a folded piece of paper from her purse that she's been carrying for weeks. It's a piece Sports Illustrated columnist Rick Reilly wrote titled, "Sis! Boom! Bah! Humbug!" It calls cheerleading pointless and dangerous.
Reilly wrote: "This is an event in which 408 girls named Amber attempt to create a human Eiffel Tower, screaming, 'Two! Four! Six! Eight!' while displaying all their gums at once. ... What's sad is that most cheerleaders would make fine athletes ... but these girls won't be on anybody's gymnastics or diving or basketball team because every season is cheerleading season."
"I mean, some of this stuff is so far out," says Geelan. "He has a point when he talks about cheerleaders maybe wearing padding or something. But, you know, he obviously didn't do enough research. Talk to any of these girls and you'll find he's missing a few good things."
In exchange for seeing how happy it makes their children, parents often miss quality time with them.
Sometimes it's 11 p.m. before CBHS cheerleader Jill Lawrence gets home from practice.
"My parents just usually, like, leave a plate of food out for me that I can microwave," she says.
Her squad mates say late practices aren't too common, except the month before the national competition, when practices can run up until midnight.
Some get fed up with that and quit, like one of CBHS's male cheerleaders just three weeks before the Orlando championship.
"That was totally unfair of him," says Lawrence. "You have to know what you can take and I guess he just couldn't handle it. I mean, with me, my parents are real supportive of it. They'd never say to me you shouldn't do this. But I have been thinking about going to college and then I really won't get to see my parents. It just can't be helped right now."
Overwhelmingly, it's the guys who bow out of a squad before girls for either personal reasons or because they can't keep up academically.
"Most of them don't want it as bad as us," Lawrence says. "They weren't prepared for this. They weren't really taught to want it as bad as we want it."
Germantown coach Chris Crabtree's father would not talk to him for three months after he decided to be a cheerleader.
His father had coached him in baseball and was always in the stands during his son's football and soccer games.
Crabtree's high school girlfriend, a cheerleader, one day asked him to come to her practice and try throwing a few girls.
"When I was about to volley this one, she was like, 'Why don't you put your hand right here?'" he says, cupping the back of his upper thigh. "I was like, 'You want me to put my hand where?' I was like, 'God, I like this.'"
The 24-year-old says he tried to explain to his father that he was burnt out with other sports and wanted to give cheering a try.
"My dad came to watch me perform once. I had a broken wrist -- that's probably the only reason why he came," says Crabtree. "He had taken me to the hospital and I said, no, I'll cheer with a broken wrist. My bone wasn't completely shattered; just a minor fracture and I thought that if I wrapped it tight enough it would be okay. He just came to see if I could do it."
Like his father, Crabtree says he thought male cheerleaders were "fags, sissies, feminine."
"And I got called all those things in the beginning when I started as a sophomore, but I think things have changed," he says. "People are really seeing it as a sport. I don't know too many guys who can pop a girl up and hold her in the air with one hand."
Nailing a college cheerleading scholarship seemed more appealing to Crabtree than playing community college baseball. His father lightened up when letters from schools like Alabama, Memphis, and Kentucky arrived promising to pay for his son's tuition, books, room and board.
"He was like, 'Well, I guess this cheerleading thing is okay if they're going to pay for you to go to school,'" recalls Crabtree. "Paying me to go lift girls for four years. It's like I've always said, would you rather go play sports and roll around with a bunch of guys or would you rather be surrounded by really good-looking girls?"
Crabtree spent two years cheering for the University of Memphis, then transferred to Kentucky.
"Kentucky really promotes a manly image," he says. "If you can stick the teasing out through high school, it's ultimately worth it."
"Cheerqueers" is the jibe male cheerleaders endure most, says CBHS cheerleader Jacob Ekmark. He chalks the teasing up to jealousy. A former football and baseball player, he says that most guys quit the CBHS squad because it's more demanding than any other sport.
"It's hard to take it sometimes. People see what we do and I think they imagine how hard it is," he says. "We spend a lot more hours in the gym lifting weights than they do."
Typically, it's much easier for a guy to make a squad than a girl, and many don't try out, but are chosen by sponsors or recruited by other cheerleaders. Few have had prior tumbling experience.
Will McClean gave up the pigskin to join the CBHS squad.
"Cheerleading is more mentally and physically challenging," he says, while freshman Tiffany Hays sits on his lap. "Because you have to think about girls and their feelings. You have to think about the things you say. These girls have been doing this their whole lives, so you have to respect them for having the drive to keep it up and be willing to learn from them."
One misconception male cheerleaders would like to throw out altogether is that they cheer because they want to look up girls' skirts.
"The last thing you're thinking about when you've got a girl in the air is arousal," Crabtree says. "All you're thinking about is, 'Don't drop her, don't drop her.'"
Sherry Ganong, the legendary U of M pom-pom coach and former cheerleader, puts it more pointedly.
"They're like gynecologists," she laughs. "I mean, c'mon, it's the same thing all the time. The first time, it may be interesting, but after that it's no big deal."
It's easy to see why men used to bring binoculars to Tiger basketball games when Ganong performed.
Barely 5' 4" in heels, Ganong's petite frame is, at 45, solid, tan muscle topped with a swash of platinum blonde hair and intense blue eyes. She's credited with inventing U of M's pom squad -- taking it to a competitive level by sassing up its once-stale, traditional choreography. To do that, she also became known as a hard case, conducting daylong practices like a drill sergeant.
"I was awful. I was really a tough bitch," she says. "But after I had kids, I started thinking, 'Would I want someone like me coaching my kids?' No way. I'm way more compassionate now. I understand that they are just kids.
"You have to be so careful," Ganong continues, "because they are influenced by magazines and videos to maintain their weight."
As she sculpted the cheerleading and pom-pom squad during her late 20s and 30s, Ganong says she felt just as much pressure to live up to what Memphis sports audiences had always thought of her: pretty, perky, and thin.
"I always felt like people were just waiting for me to gain weight. I wished I could have gone away to have my baby," she says. "People would tell me that they couldn't imagine seeing me big."
She says that with the right nutritional and personal guidance, cheerleaders should not feel they have to resort to dangerous methods to keep their weight down. Most high schools, including competitive squads in Memphis, do not monitor weight. Ganong, however, has weighed her squad for years.
"It's just part of it," she says. "Any dancer or athlete -- their body is the top priority."
It's lunch time on Saturday when Tyndale Brickey starts the ignition of her new tan Grand Cherokee with three other CBHS cheerleaders in the back seat. Another cheerleader driving a black Pathfinder follows her to Wendy's down the road from CBHS. They've been practicing since 8 a.m. It's three weeks to the championship in Orlando. They have an hour for lunch but will continue practicing until 4 p.m. Ordinarily the squad would practice later, but they will be excused to go to Mass because they have to perform Sunday at an Ole Miss game.
At Wendy's the girls order chocolate shakes, fries -- which they'll dip into the shakes like ketchup -- hamburgers, chicken pitas, cokes, and apple pies.
"I'm going to eat anything you put in front of me," says Brickey. "We don't have to watch our weight when we're practicing this much. You're not going to find too many chubby cheerleaders anyway."
Kristen Murdock, a sophomore who transferred to St. Agnes from Briarcrest to cheer for CBHS, says she saw an article in one of her cheerleading magazines about a new movie starring Kirstin Dunst as the captain of a rabidly competitive squad in the satire film Cheer Fever.
"I'm so sick of that," she says. "Everybody thinking we're conceited airheads."
Most of the girls on the CBHS squad carry a 3.5 grade point average or higher. They are required to make a 2.0.
Back at practice Coach Darby makes them run through their routine over and over, each time interrupting them for not clapping stiffly enough ("like you're squashing a bug!") or for not yelling loud enough ("If I can hear myself over you all, then you're not trying!").
There are, at this point, two cheerleaders who have their fingers bandaged. Eleven are wearing ankle braces. In the center, a cheerleader's arm is wrapped from wrist to forearm.
"Mandy, you're not holding it right," Darby yells, then realizing he may have her name wrong, he says exasperated. "Mandy, Brandy, whatever."
The squad groans but obeys with exuberance and eardrum cracking volume. They each realize the gravity of hitting their routine and pulling through on stunts that have been stepped up in difficulty to impress championship judges.
"Yeah, the stunts are harder, but it's nothing we can't do," says Jill Lawrence. Behind her, the squad has taken a break to watch a tape of their performance at a basketball game the previous night. "That's the point though. Proving to yourself that you're worth carrying on tradition."
She says there's an enormous amount of pressure to win, but Darby has prepared the squad to handle that. A veteran of the National High School Cheerleading Championships, Lawrence says it's not unusual for squads to fight against other squads.
"Especially at nationals, we have people who don't want us to win," she says. "We have people boo at us. But that's just one of those things that to me makes me want to win more. We have to prove to them that we work just as hard as anyone else. I mean, this is the hardest thing I've ever done in my life."
"Are you ready for this?"
Everyone is in the mix the last morning of competitions. Techno thumps through the bleachers as parents and other cheerleaders hold signs announcing in glitter, "JHS is gonna ROCK you!!!" and "Go Big Blue!" Parents scan the crowd with video cameras. CBHS has made the final cut as did Craigmont -- both co-ed squads with a history of hostility toward each other.
Craigmont cheerleaders angrily talk about parents of CBHS cheerleaders approaching them, saying, "Y'all might have done pretty good, but we're going to hit."
CBHS is quiet as if waiting for the boos they had received in the past. Germantown, Cordova, and Houston make it five Shelby County schools in the finals.
"The team to beat is Craigmont," says Jill Lawrence.
"The team to beat," interjects Jacob Ekmark, "is us. We have to outdo what we did last year."
"But if we don't win," Lawrence adds, "then that's okay. We are out there to do our best. Winning isn't everything."
"Yeah, it is," Ekmark laughs.
And when the winner is announced, there isn't a millisecond pause before Craigmont's most genuine cheering erupts.
Every stunt executed flawlessly, the cheerleaders representing the Craigmont Chiefs destroy their competition to win this year's National Cheerleading Championship in Orlando.
Tears wash over their faces. Tributaries of mascara pool in the corners of quivering mouths. Even the guys tear up. Some hug each other with such force, they nearly fall over before making it to the stage to collect their mammoth trophy.
For the Craigmont cheerleaders, all of the time, effort, and strained muscles have paid off. Until next year, they are the best in America.
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