Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 1, 2014

Channeling the inner cheerleader: Pom-pons can help prepare one for life

— — “You should embrace your inner cheerleader and write a column about it.” Those words were uttered to me with a grin from Lifestyles Editor Jamie Null. She was writing a TeleScope story about a cheerleader, and my long-ago past was resurfacing.

In high school, Jamie played basketball on Mercer Christian’s elite team. Other ladies in our office played softball and volleyball. And me, well I cheered.

Ever seen the movie “Bring It On?” Decades ago that was me. My life was about pom-pons, tumbling, cheering the team on and winning competitions. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine I was ever that perky.

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What Jamie didn’t know until last week is that I also coached cheerleading. I proudly worked with the Montcalm Elementary School cheerleaders for many years. I watched many of the girls progress from third- and fourth-grade cheerleaders to junior high pros.

For years, I taught them technique. I taught them gymnastics. I taught them dance. And I taught them to be proud of a “sport” that most people chuckled at when labeled as such.

But we were cheerleaders, and proud of it.

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My cheerleading injuries were plentiful and varied. There was the broken toe, which occurred when I threw a back handspring wrong when demonstrating to my young girls. I smiled through the pain, and never let them know anything was amiss. At a doctor’s visit the next day, I was told there were not a lot of treatment options. My toe, swollen and black, had to heal on its own.

And then there was the broken foot. That occurred during practice for a competition when I was in college. I landed wrong during the “breaking” of a pyramid and fell to the floor.

I remember the pain, and tears flowing down my face. I also recall the other cheerleaders scooping me up, tearing off my shoe and hurriedly transporting me to the emergency room. My mom met us at the ER. She was worried, but not panicked. As a youngster, she, too, had cheered and been an acrobatic dancer. She knew the risk of injury that came with our “sport.”

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During my college years, I also taught cheer clinics across southern West Virginia and Southwest Virginia. These, too, were not without incident.

Once, when traveling to a school in a rural area, I witnessed a horrific accident between two large, 18-wheelers. Dutifully, I pulled over and prepared to give my statement to police.

I was not prepared for what happened next. Fisticuffs between the two drivers, an angry confrontation with deputy sheriffs and, finally, the intervention of the state police.

At the time, I was young, naive and not accustomed to such violence.

Not too long ago, when sharing this story with a new hire in the newsroom, I loved it when Senior Editor Bill Archer popped in with a quip at the end: “And, as the other guy tells this story, he says, ‘The crazy thing is, there was a cheerleader standing beside the edge of the road ...’ ”

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Our practices were tough. Our gymnastics coach Casey would have us start with standing “backs” (back handsprings) until our legs turned to jelly. Forty, fifty, sixty — more. When we finally collapsed on the mats it was time for a drink of water.

A rivalry between the Bluefield State and Concord cheerleaders eroded in the late 1980s when we began practicing and training together with Casey. Soon, we were simply young women working together in a “sport” still mocked by many.

After warm-up, it was a time for trick training. In my college years, I was working toward a layout-full. How to describe this for one not familiar with gymnastics? Go up in the air and rotate the body in a full rotation — in layout position — while twisting 180 degrees. It’s a trick that, until perfected, comes with bruises. Lots and lots of bruises. To this day, I attribute many knee aches, ankle aches, wrist aches ... and well, general body aches to those long-ago practices.

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During games, we smiled, yelled, tumbled across the floor and built pyramids to the delight of crowds. But despite our hard work, long practices and intense competitions, we were still, to some, the joke — the “sport” with quotation marks.

Our blood, sweat, bruises and broken bones didn’t matter. We were cheerleaders.

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Nowadays, I consider myself much stronger, tougher and darker than I was those many decades ago. The adjectives are a combination of my personality and my job. When Jamie brings up my cheerleading days, I roll my eyes. “My pom-pons are packed away,” I tell her.

In retrospect, maybe my cheer days are a precursor to who I am now. Maybe the years of silent sweat and broken bones played a roll in toughening me up. Could it be that those pom-pons prepared me for the challenging years ahead?

Perhaps so. Despite being mocked and scoffed at by some, cheerleading has persevered as a sport. A real sport, without the quotation marks.

Samantha Perry is editor of the Bluefield Daily Telegraph. Contact her at sperry@bdtonline.com. Follow her @BDTPerry.

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