April 02, 2020

Safety for cheerleaders a concern > Increase of competition adds to risks for athletes

HOULTON — Natalia Anderson is not flying anymore and, for that, her mother is grateful. Instead, the 13-year-old is now keeping her feet near the ground when she roots, roots, roots for her home team as a member of the Houlton Junior High School cheerleading squad.

Relegating Natalia to the lower rungs of the squad, though, has not eased her mother’s queasiness about the state of cheerleading in Maine. Things have changed, Pamela Anderson says, since the days of yore when her own high school cheering efforts were concerned more with fostering team spirit instead of competition and acrobatics.

The growing emphasis on competition, she says, is to blame for her daughter’s neck injury at a recent Houlton Junior High basketball game. As the designated team flyer, Natalia flew up, but when she came down, she was not caught. She landed on her head. She suffered a severe sprain in her upper vertabrae.

While the sprain has not kept Natalia off the team — only changing her role on it — the incident woke her mother up to the changes in cheerleading.

“Now it’s a sport,” Anderson laments. “If it’s a sport, I suppose there’s a chance there will be injuries. I just think that it’s gotten out of hand.”

Anderson’s concern is borne out in national statistics which show that cheerleading accounts for nearly half of the injuries suffered by women in high school and college sports. Researchers from the University of North Carolina looked at the period 1982 to 1994 and blamed high injury rates on dramatic changes that have turned cheering into a highly competitive, and sometimes dangerous, activity.

The changes that have overtaken cheerleading will be shown again today when squads from as far north as Aroostook County converge on the Bangor Civic Center for the annual Eastern Maine cheerleading championships. Competition for classes A and D begins at 4 p.m. and action for classes C and B begins at 8 p.m.

The Maine Principals’ Association only began sanctioning such competitions 11 years ago, elevating the activity to the status of a school sport and encouraging the sophisticated and daring acrobatics that now define cheering.

“It wasn’t a competitive sport,” notes Larry LaBrie, the MPA’s associate executive director. “As a competitive sport, it has been growing by leaps and bounds.”

That is the case in Houlton where the junior high squad, and varsity and junior varsity high school teams, draw more and more students every year to their tryouts. Budgets have expanded and an industry has grown up around the sport with consultants coming in to advise coaches on their tactics.

Houlton High’s win at the state championships has only enhanced cheering’s attraction, according to principal Joe Feeney. At the same time, it has upped the standards of performance for the squads.

“I think it’s become a very physical sport,” Feeney says. “Unfortunately, a lot of parents think that it’s a group of girls out getting the crowd to cheer. I think they don’t realize what their kids are doing.”

After Natalia’s accident and her mother’s response to it, Feeney decided that, in the future, a letter pointing out the dangers of cheering will be sent to parents of all students trying out for the squads. The schools have also adopted new standards for both practicing and performing, including the use of 1 1/2-inch thick mats.

That type of mat will also make its appearance at the Eastern Maine championship which, in the past, was done solely on the bare hardwood floor.

To the MPA, using the mats is simply recognition that cheering has evolved into a sport and, thus, participants should be afforded certain protections.

“Kids get injured, as in all sports,” LaBrie said.

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