espnW: Melissa Isaacson
Cheerleading has always scared me.
As a self-conscious middle-schooler, the very concept of uniformed girls marching around advertising their popularity and perfect hair made me want to hide behind a basketball rack, which worked out well since that’s where I wanted to be anyway.
It didn’t really matter that in reality, not all cheerleaders necessarily fit the stereotype. My friend Bari was a cheerleader. She did not have good hair (swimming in high school gym class was a particularly bad scene), was the smartest kid in the school and at the time, would have traded her keen mind in a heartbeat if it meant having longer legs.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like cheerleaders. It was just the idea of cheering for boys performing athletic feats that did not sit well. In the early years of Title IX, we were still fighting for equal representation in sports, then equal gym time, varsity recognition and state tournaments, all the while with the keen realization that girls just a little older than us had only cheerleading to occupy their athletic pursuits.
With no point of reference other than what her older sisters had done before her, my friend Connie reported to cheerleader tryouts our first week of high school in the fall of 1975. As all around her girls leaped and twirled, Connie jumped and stomped before finally telling no one in particular, “Well, I guess I’ll go try sports.”
Playing sports with her brothers was something she loved growing up, something that came naturally to her as it did me, but no one told us we were athletes.
And so we found ourselves eventually in gyms and pools, on tracks and fields. Connie played every sport she could and became an all-state performer in basketball, leading us to one of the first state championships in Illinois for girls and earning a full scholarship to college, along with several other girls on our team.
In our minds, we had proven girls did not have to be cheerleaders anymore. And when the varsity cheerleaders at our school cheered for us in the state tournament, another first, it seemed to be one more statement that we had somehow blown away another stereotype, though not sure if it was for us or for them.
But when I had my first child, a daughter, a new set of fears emerged.
Would I be a good mother? What values would I instill in her? And how was I going to figure out how to do her hair?
One thing I knew for sure as she gravitated toward every girly thing I had mostly been repelled by (including, thankfully, figuring out how to do her own hair) was that she was not going to be a cheerleader. Not my kid. Nope, she was going to be an Olympic athlete. Not that I was unrealistic or demanding or anything. An All-American would have been fine, too.
When it became clear -- about the time she struck her first mush-ball off her first tee and pirouetted to first base -- that this might not be in the cards, a group of her friends’ moms told us about a cheerleading class. I think they were 6. We were in.
I won’t say I discouraged my daughter’s potential cheerleading career. But when she didn’t bring it up the next year, neither did I, moving on to a succession of other activities that, despite the frequent inquiries from other moms -- “What does Amanda do?” -- only proved that like most kids, she did everything and nothing in particular.
I have come around to the idea that cheerleading is a serious athletic endeavor. And I certainly admire their dedication. Am I glad my daughter, even with proper training, is not being tossed in the air or does not have other girls standing on her back in a pyramid? Yup. Stories of serious cheerleading injuries, one as recently as the Orlando Magic cheerleader fracturing three vertebrae and breaking a rib this week, are scary.
But better that than fearing it for all of the wrong reasons.