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Cheerleading may be viewed as a perky sideline to the main event, but the world of competitive cheerleading is just as grueling a sport.

By Adrienne Martini

NOVEMBER 15, 1999:  Cheerleader Nikki Goss is crumpled on the padded gym floor and crying. What happened was this: As she flew into the air, flung up there by three other girls, Nikki felt something in her back pop. When her bases—the three girls who threw her—caught her, she was folded up like a taco and couldn't unbend herself. In less than a week, this Knoxville-based squad will be competing for a bid to the Universal Cheerleading Association (UCA) Championships in Orlando in March. If Nikki isn't healthy, they'll have to do it without the girl who has been front and center in their routine.

Who cares? It's just cheerleading, right? This is just an event in which teenage girls dress up in short skirts and hair ribbons in order to psyche up a crowd to scream for more important things, like football or basketball. Cheerleading is just a sideline to the main sporting event that the spectators came to see, icing on the cake. Swap one girl in for the injured one and the team will once again be golden.

If you believe that, you've clearly been sound asleep for the last 20 years. Cheerleading has become more than the popular girls placidly rah-rahing from the sidelines. "Once content with frothy squeals," reports The New York Times, "today's cheerleaders can boast that their athletic, high-difficulty displays cause more deaths and injuries than any high school or college women's sport." A fact which becomes increasingly evident as you look at this team—Nikki is lying on a mat holding a bag of ice on her back, several girls have white tape around their ankles or wrists or knees. Several also have scars from knee surgery to repair torn ACLs—the same knee injury that benched New York Knick Bernard King and Philadelphia Eagle quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Competitive cheerleading as a sport is still seaching for definitions of what it wants to be. Right now there are a half-dozen organizations who hold tournaments; the largest of which is UCA with over 200,000 members and coaches. An over-riding ruling body, like baseball's commission or the NCAA, currently doesn't exist, which makes the sport appear more like a sideshow and less like a "real" competition. Plus, our culture stereotypes cheerleaders as bubble-heads and sinful objects of desire—and each of these views subtracts from the skill, athleticism, and hard-work that cheerleaders put into each routine.

But you'd never know how much they hurt or how little respect they get once the music starts and these girls launch into their routine. Big grins shine and ponytails bob as these 25 girls tumble, toss, and gyrate under the sodium lights of the Premier Cheerleading Gym, home of the Shark All-star squad. This championship team is comprised of the best high school talent in Knoxville this year and the only team they cheer for is themselves.

The Premier gym is a cavernous space carved into a hillside halfway between the center city and Karns. At 3 p.m. it is nearly empty and dark. An unlit neon shark greets everyone who walks through the door. Former UT cheerleader and gym manager Cole Stott and coach Mike Martinez huddle in a sparsely furnished and fluorescently lit office, talking and waiting for the onslaught of athletes.

The gym started four years ago, the brainchild of some UT MBA candidates who proposed it as their thesis. At first, the program had 100 kids. Now, the Knoxville gym has over 500 athletes and the company owns seven other facilities in Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina. The gym has also placed 18 of its girls with college squads like UT and ETSU. Five All-star teams, the UT Cheerleaders, and several high school squads like Karns and Powell all train here. In less than an hour, the neon shark will be plugged in and this empty, echoing space will ring with cheers.

All-star cheerleading started in the late '80s and was a major force in constantly raising the bar for cheerleaders of all ages. An All-star squad is not affiliated with any high school; rather, it is made up of girls culled from a private gym's auditions. They don't cheer at other sporting events. You won't see them boosting the morale or decorating the sideline for "their" team. Instead, these cheerleaders spend hours perfecting the difficult tumbling, which looks like segments lifted from an Olympic gymnastics floor exercise, and stunts, which are when a group of girls (the bases) lifts or tosses another girl (the flyer). And, in between, they dance and chant.

"I think the best thing about All-star cheerleading is that you don't have to worry about cheering for a crowd that doesn't care whether you're there or not," says Martinez, whose excitement for the sport flashes out of his dark eyes like lightning. "You don't have to worry about cheering for a team that doesn't care whether you cheer for them or not. You're strictly competing. You're strictly considered an athlete and you strictly act like an athlete. It's all the athletic part of cheerleading without the ambassadorship.

"The worst thing about All-stars is that it's the athletic part of cheerleading and it's not the ambassadorship. You don't get the fun like painting the sign that the team runs through, doing the pep rallies. You really don't get a lot of that. Nobody sees you bleed at practice that one day. Nobody sees you crying because your back hurts. That's just part of it. You're not under the spotlight within your peer group. If you're cheering in high school you can wear your uniform on Fridays and everybody knows that you're a cheerleader. You're never really put in that situation here."

Martinez, 28, personally knows the differences between All-star and high school cheerleading. He has been coaching All-stars for at least six years, competed on his college squad in Kentucky, and travels to other cities as well to choreograph their routines. Before that he was on his own high school squad in Ft. Lauderdale. His path to the cheerleading team came through football; his school's team has won honors for having the longest losing streak in the country. His math teacher was also the cheerleading coach and convinced Martinez and nine other guys to go to a cheerleading camp. "It was us 10 guys and 300 girls," he says. "We're like yes! This is awesome!"

Cheerleading, while it is still largely a sport for girls, is slowly offering more opportunities for boys. Perceptions of boys who cheer are slowly changing; no longer are they considered effete dancers who aren't athletes. UT cheerleader Kevin Carr, a giant who would look equally at home on the gridiron, comments before a practice that "Florida fans are the only ones who think boys are weird for cheering.

"Cheerleading," Carr continues, "is a noble, admirable combo of strength and skill. Plus, you get to be one of the guys while hanging out with the girls. There's nothing else like it."

The Premier gym was finally able to start a co-ed senior squad this year, which has three guys on it. Also on their All-star roster are two junior teams for younger teens, called the Atlantic and Pacific Sharks, as well as two youth teams for elementary school girls. But it is the 25 or so senior Sharks who are Martinez' primary concern. "Number one," he says, with a laugh. "I don't know if I'll ever have children because I get my dose every day.

"I don't look at them as teenage girls. When I coach them, I coach them as athletes. I feel like I coach them the same way I'd coach a football team. I don't treat them any differently. The only times I treat them differently are situations where it warrants that, like when a girl says 'Mike, I can barely walk because I have cramps so bad.' I'm aware of that, though I don't know for a fact how it feels, but when this person's crying, hunched over walking towards me, I deal with that.

"But I don't see them in their social setting, like at school. I'm not their teacher so I don't see them bouncing around the hallway with their boyfriend or with their best friend at lunch. I only see them when they are here for me to coach them."

By 7 p.m. the gym is bedlam. The senior girls are warming up in front of a wall of mirrors. Most of the Junior Sharks are here, too, working with their coach Chris Sipes. Plus, some of the co-ed team members are practicing partner stunts, which is when one boy lifts one of the girls above his head and she strikes a pose, usually with her fists above her head. Kids tumble across the mat as easily as a non-cheerleader would walk across it. Some of the smaller, younger Sharks are working on their tumbling on the trampoline. Music blares as the Premier dance team runs through their competition routine and parents chatter from the bleachers in the viewing box.

Nikki, the girl whose back popped, watches and pleads Mike to let her practice with the other girls. But he won't let her, simply because he does not want her to injure herself further by tumbling and stunting. Her mom, Cindy, comes onto the mat to talk with her and tries to rub out the spasm. It doesn't work. Fortunately, Nikki's dad is a doctor; he'll X-ray her spine before the week is over. A few of the girls come over to console her when they have a break.

But, in the meantime, there is work to be done. This is the first practice where all of the girls have been present. Mike mentions that it's harder to get all of the high school girls here at the same time, due to schoolwork and, of course, boys. They're all here now, though, and the first qualifying tournament of the season, the Volunteer Regional at Thompson-Boling Arena, is only a few days away, on Halloween.

The routine starts with a basket toss (picture two girls flying 20-feet into the air, thrown up and caught by three other girls), then breaks out into five groups who perform stunts, each with a flyer in the air, and then tumbling runs, done to snippets of up-tempo music. Then comes the chanting, without music, and stunting, where girls lift each other into the air and they form geometric shapes with their bodies. Last is the dance, with music again, and the girls thrust their hips, shake their heads, and, occasionally, throw standing tucks and flips.

This run-through doesn't go well. One group crumbles during one of the opening stunts and the flyer falls. Nikki and her bases are walking through the stunts. During the chants, a side of the line collapses. The dance, however, doesn't look half-bad, if you can get past the frowns of disappointment and frustration that wipe the grins from their faces.

Mike gathers them afterwards. He doesn't yell, nor does he blame the specific girls whose stunts failed. "You've got to always be thinking," he says. "You're like deer in the headlights right now. You know how to do this."

And they do it again. And again, then break out and work on specific problems. And then they do it again. Then, suddenly, the practice is over. While the same group keeps dropping their stunt, all of the other problem areas have been smoothed out. Mike gathers the girls, who are now exhausted and red-faced, in a back corner of the gym. "It's all mental now," he tells them. Then he tells the girls about Stott.

Two days ago, Stott, who has been an assistant coach for this team, was diagnosed with cancer. He's been through one round of surgery already, with another scheduled. It's a shock, especially since he is 24 years old. The girls are quiet and stare at the floor for a few minutes, not sure what to do. Mike gathers them into a circle, which each girl puts a hand in. One of the girls asks if anyone would mind if they say a quick prayer. No one objects and they do. The circle breaks up and they start discussing what color ribbons—white or navy—they'll wear around their ponytails for the competition.

"I came from gymnastics," says Amanda Turlik, a senior who goes to Seymour High School. "And I got hurt in gymnastics. My coach was just like, well, her husband was involved in the cheerleading program. So he's like 'well, why don't you try this?' So I tried it and I like it. I like competing [with the Sharks] more than high school cheerleading. It's not trying to be popular and win everybody's votes. You're all out there with the same goals—to win nationals. You're just all working together to compete together.

"The greatest thing about cheerleading is when you go out and everyone is cheering for you. You have everyone's attention. If you hit the routine you have everybody trying to catch up with you, to beat you.

"The worst thing is if your coach isn't with you all of the way or if your team members don't get along to well. My high school team was like that," she adds.

Turlik, once she graduates, plans to keep cheering in college. She has applied to both UT and the University of Kentucky, which is a popular choice for high school cheerleaders and the squad to win a place on. There's just something about the bluegrass state; their high school and All-star teams routinely win most national competitions and one squad from Greenup County has been the focus of media attention simply because of their extraordinary skill. Kentucky teams rule—and are the ones you usually see on ESPN. "They're the Empire," says Carr about the UT/UK cheerleading rivalry, "and we're the Rebel Alliance."

Ashley Smith, whose Sweet Sixteen will fall on the same day as the Volunteer Regional, isn't thinking about college yet. Right now, she's more focused on rebuilding after having surgery to repair her ACL, MCL, and meniscus while getting settled with the Sharks after moving here from Ohio—from a squad that routinely competed against the Sharks.

"It's different [in Knoxville]. I don't know if it's harder or not, but it's different. Like the way they stunt—everything's different. We didn't even call it stunting, we called it mounting."

On the Sharks team, Smith is the easiest girl to spot. In a sea of white faces, hers is the only one of color. "That's how it was in Ohio, too," she says. "There was one other and she was like my little sister. I'm pretty used to it. I guess it's really not a big deal to me because most of the schools I've been to, there's only a few. So it really doesn't bother me too much."

Smith came to cheerleading from gymnastics, like many of the girls, including Heather Marshall, another team senior who'll graduate from Bearden in the spring. In 8th grade, Marshall took a cheerleading class at the Premier gym and was drafted by Mike for the All-star team. She was the youngest girl to make the squad. Again, like many of the girls, Marshall has had her share of injuries. Recently, she has had surgery to repair the meniscus in her knee. "I was supposed to be out—they said that rehab was going to take until September," she says. "I just couldn't wait that long. I had pressure from Mike to get back in it, that he needed me. So I got totally back into cheerleading in August. I don't think that I did the rehabilitation the way that I should have so it's still an on-going problem."

How does Marshall handle the pressure of being on a competitive team and a student? "Well, it's hard," she says in a tiny voice. "I think it's just me being committed. I've always been committed to something and I've had so many thoughts this summer to just quit doing it—it's my fifth year, I'm so over it, I don't want to go through this one more time. But then I was like gosh, I've already gone through this four times, you know? It gives me something to do because being a senior you don't have any hard classes. But I think it's just being committed. Dedication. Saying you're going to do something and doing it."

One thing Marshall won't say is that she wants to cheer after this season. She plans to go to UT in the fall and will not try out for the team. "I'm just burned-out on athletics," she says. "I've always had something to do and I'm just sick of it. I'm going to concentrate on school and work.

"Cheerleaders are perceived as airheads," she responds when asked about how outsiders see her sport. "A lot of people don't think it's a sport, that we don't really have a purpose. Sometimes, a lot of people don't know the difference between a high school squad and working for a year for a national competition. When I tell people I'm doing cheerleading, they're like 'Oh, for Bearden.' And I'm like 'No.' Then they're like, "Who do you cheer for? I've never seen a cheerleading squad that doesn't cheer for something.' I think a lot of the time cheerleaders are just perceived as blondes who bounce around."

How are competitive cheerleaders not like that?

"I'm not blonde," she says with a deep laugh. "We work hard. We put emotion into it. We goad each other. We get in fights. We've got a coach that pushes us more than anything. We all have a dream that we want to work towards, a final accomplishment that we want to get to and we will give anything that we have to give to get there. And to get the satisfaction that we worked for a year and accomplished what we said we were going to.

"We're hoping to win a national title. My first year on the squad I didn't expect anything. I was just like 'oh, fine, we're going to this competition.' I'd seen them on ESPN before. Then I went and I won and it felt so awesome. It's a feeling that nobody has ever felt before. People were peein' on themselves. From that day on, I knew what we were working towards."

On the morning of the competition, the girls from all of the Sharks teams warm-up in the gym. The senior girls primp in the mirror, putting on lipstick and fussing with the navy ribbons in their hair. You can smell hairspray coming out of the restroom and someone yells "I swear my butt's not that big!"

Some of the moms up in the viewing gallery wear dark blue T-shirts with a shark and a slogan: "If you can't swim with the big fish, get out of the water." Cindy Goss is there and Nikki is on the gym floor, stretching. Her back is still tight, her mom says, but she can compete.

You'd never know that anyone is hurt or tired or nervous. The girls are all smiles. Stott is there, looking tired and excited. Mike, who is decked out in a suit for which a few of the girls tease him, gets them up and running through the routine. The music starts. Nikki misses one of her stunts and the flyer in the back wobbles, then falls. After the music stops, they head to the back of the gym and work on the bobbles.

Before the group heads to Thompson-Boling, Mike gathers them for a some words of wisdom. "We're going to try to do the perfect routine," he says. "We have 150 seconds to get it right. If we do it, we move on to nationals. If not, it's okay. Just have fun and stick the technique. I'm proud of you guys." The group breaks with a big "Cole!" after a count of three.

Thompson-Boling is bustling. Gaggles of girls in uniform warm-up within their squads. Both All-star teams and high school teams are competing—but not against each other—and are divided by school size and age of the girls on the team. The girls in the arena range in age from kindergarten all the way up to high school.

The big competition for the senior Sharks will be an All-star squad from Kentucky—or so they think. Once they get to the gym, the girls learn that the team has scratched and that the senior squad will be essentially competing against themselves for a bid to nationals. It's a bit of a let-down for the team, most of whom were looking forward to seeing what their rivals looked like this year. Also, they now have no outside opponent to push them to win enough points, which are awarded on technique and difficulty, to get a bid.

The high school squads take the mats first. One section of the arena's seats are packed with parents, siblings, boyfriends, and cheerleaders who will compete later. Some of the Sharks also cheer for their high schools and after running through one routine, will have to race to change clothes, gather their wits, and cheer with the Sharks. But for the girls who don't cheer on their high school teams, it's a long, nervous wait.

However, for the audience, even the high school teams are electrifying. Most of the girls hit their stunts and radiate charm, health, and (you have to admit it) pep. Cuts from Ricky Martin and Toni Basil are in almost every team's music. Some of the teams, granted, are more polished than others, but each one can raise goosebumps on the arms of even the most hardened observer as they tumble within inches of each other and disaster.

And disaster nearly strikes the squad from middle Tennessee's Soddy-Daisy High School. During the final seconds of their routine, a shoe comes flying out of a stunt as a girl doubles over with her hands cupped in front of her face. At first, it looks as if she has been hit in the face with the errant shoe. As it turns out, she had thrown-up in her hands during the routine. "It's just nerves," Mike says, as a poor arena staffer comes out with a wad of paper towels.

Stott comes over to talk with the Youth Prep squad—the youngest girls who look like dolls with ponytails, glitter, and a light coat of lipstick. "Are you nervous?" he asks. The girls nod. "You know what the best thing to do when you're scared? Smile real big." A few days later, Stott would find out that he a second round of surgery and only three treatments for his cancer, which is relatively good news.

Finally, the All-star teams are up. Before the youth team takes the mat, the Junior and Senior girls do the Shark Check—which is a rhythmic clapping chant that ends with the girls putting their hands on their foreheads like Shark fins—and boost the confidence of the younger girls.

The senior girls dash to the outside entrances to practice. They tumble and stunt out on the hard concrete and, seemingly, have no fear of what may happen should they fall. One last time Mike gathers them. "It's yours to loose," he tells them. "Let's just let it all hang out." On three, the girls yell "Sharks!" and head back into the arena.

The most nerve-wracking moment, Smith and Marshall have both said, is after you take the mat and are waiting for your music to start. Twenty-five girls on the mat stare down and wait for the music. And when it starts, they launch into the routine with great big smiles.

But, unfortunately, despite the opportunity for a national bid and Mike's promise to take them all bowling if they do a clean routine, the stunt that has failed in practice, fails again. The flyer collapses, caught by her bases, a couple of counts to early. The Sharks stick everything else, however, and they leave the mat both disappointed and elated. "There are no more rookies," Mike tells them. The girls give a weak cheer and go find their families while the judges tally the scores.

Before the winners are announced, all of the teams are gathered on the mat to await their scores. Some of the girls look tense, but, mostly, they just look sweaty and tired. A few have wiped off their make-up, yet each and every pony tail rides high, despite the intense activity of the afternoon. Even with the mistake, the Sharks have enough difficulty and accuracy to win their bid.

"When people say 'Oh, that's not really a sport' I encourage them to come and watch," Marshall says. "Come and sit in on a practice for at least a half an hour. See that we don't bounce around. We condition ourselves and we work out. Winning is something that we're striving towards."

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