Not just pom poms and smiles: Endurance, energy are required in eye-popping, risk-taking sport of cheerFARGO — They perform at almost every high school sporting event, and they often perform stunts even the athletes on the field couldn’t pull off.
By: Heath Hotzler, Forum Communications Co.
FARGO — They perform at almost every high school sporting event, and they often perform stunts even the athletes on the field couldn’t pull off.
They flip, they tumble, they implore you to get to your feet and scream.
They are mostly girls, sometimes boys, and they are always smiling.
They are cheerleaders.
And they want you to know that they are athletes and that what they do is a sport.
“They are very good all-around athletes,” Fargo South cheer team coach Holly Strand said. “They are not the stereotypical cute little girl with the ponytail. They need to have endurance and they need to have the energy to keep up.”
High school cheerleading can be divided into two distinctly different genres: Game performance and competition.
Many of North Dakota’s cheer squads do both, with the competitive season running in the fall and winter. The final winter competition is scheduled for March 17 in Bismarck.
The game side is the core of the sport. It’s everything you think you know.
It is pom-pom shaking, pyramid making, high-kick taking sideline revelry.
But it’s also come a long way in North Dakota.
You might see tumbling, basket tosses and cheerleaders twisting in the air before landing into the waiting arms of teammates.
There was hesitation in North Dakota high schools to ramp up the stunts following the death of a former North Dakota State cheerleader during a practice in 1986. Janis Thompson was killed when her head slammed the floor during a leaping dismount from the top of a three-tier pyramid.
It took years for coaches and teams to get comfortable enough to increase the difficulty level.
However, training and hard work and a strict attention to safety now have squads ready and willing to give stunting another try.
“I see a lot of girls from my sophomore year (who are now seniors), doing harder stunts,” South senior Brittany Wooten said. “A lot of teams put in the hard stuff to pump up their routines. Sometimes I think that this could be really dangerous. But everything that could be dangerous is taken step by step.”
“My first year we did basic stunts,” South junior Allie Thoemke added. “Now we have experienced flyers on the team and we’re doing more complicated stunts. But we only do things our coach says are safe for us. She’s making sure we are safe at all times.”
Welcome to competition cheerleading.
There is often risk, danger, competitive drive, athleticism, personality, spirit and teamwork.
Lots and lots of teamwork.
With the dangers involved with stunting, coaches are making sure any risks are limited by extra work in the practice room.
If a stunt is not perfected in a controlled setting, it’s not performed. Period.
Cheerleaders at local schools now go step by step during a stunt, looking to nail each aspect of a stunt before they can move on to the next level.
“It’s insane how the difficulty level has increased in the state of North Dakota,” Fargo North cheer coach Leah Ramstad said. “There is a variety of different reasons for that. You have more knowledgeable coaches, you have women who really want to learn the sport, learn creative moves and they really want to push the envelope.”
“Some of the stunts are really difficult,” North senior Lexi Schumacher added. “At first, it almost seems impossible. But once you get the hang of it it’s a lot of fun. It’s very tough, though.”
Cheerleading has not yet been sanctioned by the North Dakota High School Activities Association. The NDHSAA currently recognizes cheerleading to monitor and govern the use of stunts.
There is no sanctioned state tournament, no championship trophy.
There is discussion of adding cheerleading to the NDHSAA roster of recognized sports.
That would allow for more competitions during the season, and an added sense of validity for a sport and a group of athletes always fighting for respect.
Sanctioning the sport in North Dakota would also bring the postseason hardware.
“It would be nice, in a sense,” said Strand, who will take over as president of the North Dakota Cheer Coach Association in May. “I was against it until I did more research. Now I’m on board. Everyone kind of felt like they would be taking over competitions they knew nothing about. But there would be a lot of positives.”
Still think cheerleading isn’t a sport?
Head into the practice room of your local school. Take a look at what’s going on.
Then imagine if you could do it.
Chances are even the strongest football player, quickest basketball player or most-skilled hockey player in the school might have a tough time with the practice regimen, tumbling and stunts.
“It’s really hard,” North senior Caitlyn Anderson said. “When we get into competitions, it’s a time where we go home just drenched because we’ve worked so hard. It’s a lot of work to do all those stunts.”
Hotzler is a sports reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.