Photo Submitted by Kaitlyn Sheets
In December of 2012, cheerleader and freshman Kaitlyn Sheets was warming up with her all-star cheerleading team at a competition in Kentucky before performing a routine for a panel of judges and a full audience. As the flyer, she would be the member of the stunt group to be lifted in the air. Sheets was brought into a position that her team had practiced numerous times before; she would flip in the air over another flyer and her teammates below would catch her. This time, when she was flipped for her stunt, she was caught—but hit her head onto the concrete ground of the warm-up room.
Sheets said she heard a loud pop and afterwards could not remember anything else from the event. She said she was going into the stunt, she had a bad feeling about it and felt an “odd, spine-tingling feeling…like cold chills.”
“When I had (the accident), I had the risk of dying almost because it was really bad. It just put me at risk for long-term effects,” Sheets said. “I had really bad memory—I still do—and then just had really severe headaches and noise sensitivity and light sensitivity and I wasn’t able to think that well.”
“When I had (the accident), I had the risk of dying almost because it was really bad. It just put me at risk for long-term effects. I had really bad memory—I still do—and then just had really severe headaches and noise sensitivity and light sensitivity and I wasn’t able to think that well.”
Sheets’ accident is just one case showing the dangers of all-star cheerleading. Although television and movies have depicted cheerleaders with negative connotations, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research at the University of North Carolina, cheerleading is the highest-ranking sport in fatal injuries for female athletes in 2011—only American football ranked higher when compared to all sports. The center also said, “65.2 percent of all catastrophic injuries in youth sports occur in cheerleading.”
Live Science reported cheerleading statistics to be equally as grim in college cheerleading and said the collegiate activity accounts for 66.7 percent of all female fatal sports injuries, which in the past was an estimated 59.4 percent.
Patrick Cowherd is a cheerleading coach at Hollywood All-Stars with 35 years of coaching experience. As a former cheerleader for the University of Louisville and the National Cheerleading Association, Cowherd said there are a lot of things about cheerleading that do not get enough attention.
“Mostly, (injuries have) just been head concussions. There’s so much science that needs to be done behind it,” Cowherd said. “A concussion can put you out for six to eight weeks; it can put you out for three months; it can put you out for good.”
However, although there are numerous cases of catastrophic injury in the activity, cheerleading has not yet been officially declared a sport. For his part, Cowherd said even though cheerleaders train like athletes in any other sport, those who say cheerleading is not a sport are not technically wrong.
“Until it’s declared a sport, it’s not really a sport. We need to push for it to be a sport. If (cheerleading) becomes a sport, then we will get the safety, we will get the athletic trainers, we will get the right mats; the schools will be forced to put in regulations. So to an extent, they’re right; it’s not a sport right now,” Cowherd said. “We train just like any other sport; we train five to six days a week… but we’re just not recognized.”
Cowherd also said although there have been critical height studies done for cheerleading, he believes they should be brought to the forefront. He said if cheerleading became a sport, there would be stricter guidelines in place to help make the sport safer, such as performing on two-inch mats.
“Is it really safe to (cheer) on grass now? Is it really safe to do it on a rubberized track? No, because when you fall and you hit those things, there’s nothing there to really absorb that fall,” Cowherd said. “If you made (cheerleading) a sport, then we would have to tend to it and look at it a little better as a sport.”
Sheets said she wants people to know stereotypes about cheerleading are largely false.
“People have the conception that (we) just stand there practicing cheers when in the reality of it, it’s people getting hurt,” Sheets said. “It’s not a popularity contest. Doing all these different skills can really badly injure you.”
“In the all-star sector, (cheerleading has) become more of a couture sport,” Cowherd said. “It’s about beautification and the big bows and everything else; people are looking past the safety aspect of it. I think once we can dress the part a little bit more and get everything that’s supposed to happen in our sport like it needs to, then I think we’ll get taken a little more seriously.”
Graphic by Alina Husain
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