Growing up in the suburbs, Thou shalt participate in organized sports is the unwritten eleventh commandment.
In the movies, parents sign up to coach their kids’ teams as a bonding experience. In my town, it was likely an overflow activity for Rageaholics Anonymous. It’s almost hilarious how seriously people took these games. Sometimes I think that if we all spent as much time actually playing sports as we did obsessing over them, America’s obesity crisis would be significantly diminished.
It was really the basketball games that brought out the ultimate crazy in people. In fourth grade, my coach assigned us a simple teamwork offensive strategy called Pass the Ball to Stephanie. I dared to defy it only once, but the loud cries of WHAT ARE YOU DOING distracted me, and I double-dribbled. In other ethically bankrupt highlights, the coach of my church’s basketball team in middle school gave the award for team spirit and sportsmanship to his own daughter.
What I disliked most about playing on these teams was how crappy it felt to always be on the losing side while our opponents celebrated. I couldn’t see the fun in it.
In ninth grade, I joined the lacrosse team. Our school district didn’t have a lacrosse program for middle schoolers at the time, so we were all beginners. As I learned how to play, I quickly found I loved playing defense and that I was good at it. I could take out my aggression, Regina George style, with stick checks, and it earned me nothing but praise. I got the award I had always wanted: Most Improved. Lacrosse was a step up from my past experiences playing recreational sports, but I had greater aspirations.
A federal court recently ruled that cheerleading is not a sport, but the reality is that it’s more than that. A cheerleader’s work is never ever done. You must always be conditioning, practicing, stretching. It’s a constant treadmill, one day for 30 minutes at 5.0, no stopping. 500 crunches. Wall squats. Machines to tighten your quads, delts, hip flexors. There are jumps to learn, routines to master, moves to tighten, stunts to execute, and all the while the feeling that your spot is in jeopardy. All of this was a challenge I welcomed.
While the all-American stereotype of the cheerleader would paint us all as nice girls who are full of smiles and rainbows and sleep over each other’s houses, the reality is much darker, at least in my experience. I recently read Megan Abbott‘s Dare Me, and the memories came flooding back.
“Some of the people on this squad just do it for the skirt,” declared one captain at practice. It was an ironic statement coming from one of the unnamed people our coach meant when she said we would not get belly-baring uniforms until we could all wear them. I didn’t do it just for the uniform. The squad was a set schedule, a purpose, an identity. “God, it must be terrible not to be on cheer. How would you know what to do?” wonders Addy in Dare Me.
They said that I lied to get on the squad, that I pretended I could do gymnastics when I couldn’t. I did take gymnastics, but I could never throw a back handspring. Very few of the girls could.
“You’re useless to a cheerleading squad if you can’t stunt,” said one of the juniors to another, looking at me. Too tall to be a flyer or a base, I could only be a back spot, probably the safest part of a stunt, but it made me nervous. The other girls showed their bruises — battle scars from stunting — with pride, and told stories of broken noses and getting kicked in the teeth.
There was also the issue of The Rules. No nail polish. No jewelry. Hair off your face. No holding hands, hugging guys, or being seen outside of school doing anything to embarrass the squad while in uniform. No dating the football players. And never, ever say “whoo.”
Cheering itself is actually fun. Whenever my mind would wander in class it was always stuck on a loop of eight-counts and dance moves, turning them over in my mind again and again until they were perfect. It was a place made of stretching and counting and routines where no one could get to you — except your coach, who could tell you that despite what you thought, you were terrible.
I’m tall, so any mistakes I made would be particularly visible. I shouldn’t extend my double-jointed arms completely — they stuck out. And although I was not the only girl who wore her team t-shirt tied in the back to school, I was apparently the only one who violated the dress code. There were also my swollen, cyst-ridden wrists.
I could survive all this, and I had – for three and a half seasons.
During my second basketball season, I finally mastered the herkie jump. Practicing it one night before a game, I pulled a muscle in my back. I recovered after a day spent in bed, but the lecture I got about stretching properly and how my injury would reflect on the coach was simply too much. I tearfully turned in my uniform.
I had stayed this long because I loved it. I wanted to love it.
The day I finally pulled my right leg up into a perfect heel stretch nearly pain-free was amazing, proof that if I stretched, pushed hard enough, I could have anything I wanted. Even now, at the gym on a simple machine, I am back in our weight room, in my cheerleading body, and I feel the need again to be stronger, push harder, so I do.