The sight is startling: 37 brightly clad teen-age girls jogging around a high school track at 5:30 on a sultry summer evening.
The temperature is about 90 and the humidity makes it seem even hotter. A few girls straggle behind a bit but are quickly encouraged and tugged along by their friends.
Are these girls crazy? What the heck is going on here?
Call ita revolution. A cheerleader revolution, in which Atholton is changing the image of its pompon pushers.
Old image: snobby social club composed of soft, weak, dumb girls who huff and puff off the court after sloppy, ineffectual cheering routines that elicit little or no response -- or respect -- from fans.
New image: well-trained, organized, highly conditioned and respected group of intelligent girls who not only perform sharp, difficult cheering routines during sports contests but also compete favorably against other cheerleading squads.
After completing eight laps (two miles) around the track, the girls barely catch their breath before heading into the school building to do some weight training. After a half hour of weight training aimed at building endurance, the girls spend two more hours practicing theircheering routines.
Coach Tricia O'Neill, a former Atholton cheerleader, began this conditioning program last summer when she took overthe squad.
"My younger sister (Cara) was on the cheerleading squad for four years and I noticed that they were sloppy coming out of their routines," O'Neill said. "They lacked endurance."
O'Neill, 23,teaches aerobics and knows the value of conditioning. She institutedtwo-a-week, three-hour summer practices, and the extra work paid off.
Last February in Orlando, Fla., Atholton became the first cheerleading team from Maryland ever to compete for a national championship. The Raiders finished 11th among 96 teams in the Universal Cheerleaders Association's national championship event. The top 10 teams performed on ESPN. The Raiders' goal this year is to make the top 10, which they missed by just three points last year.
Atholton had qualified for the nationals by winning the Central Atlantic Regional Championship.
Were those uncomfortable summer practices worth it?
"I hated them at first, but I said to myself after nationals that if we hadn't done all that conditioning, we wouldn't be here," returning senior Meredith Monroe said. "So now I don't mind being pushed."
For years, no one thought of high school cheerleaders as athletes. But Atholton hopes to change that. Five girls on this year's team -- Michelle Benson, Erica Lucy, Heather Mennell, Shannon Mennell and Monroe --were part of Atholton's gymnastics team, which won a state title last spring.
"I want to be considered an athlete," senior Becca Riggleman said.
The county still considers cheerleading a club, not a sport, which is why it doesn't pay for uniforms or impose the same rules that apply to athletic teams.
Under regulations governing sports teams, O'Neill could not hold summer practices, take her team to compete in Florida, or accompany her team to summer camp at Penn State University.
"In that respect, we really have the best of both worlds," senior Amy Lorditch said. "So we don't want to be considered a sport."
Joining O'Neill as a coach this year is her sister, Eileen Powell, also a former Atholton cheerleader. In fact, four O'Neill sisters have led cheers for Atholton in a nearly unbroken line for the past 10 years. Eileen is 26, Maureen is 24 and Cara is 17.
"I thinkEileen and I will be able to work well together. We're trying to build an organization modeled after Pennsylvania schools, which have thebest cheerleaders," Tricia said. "We want to start them young so by the time they are seniors, they are really excellent."
The team attended a Pennsylvania camp this summer instead of one at nearby Towson State because O'Neill thought her team would be challenged more. "Camp was exhausting," O'Neill said. "They went non-stop for four days from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. There was so much material to learn."
About70 girls tried out for this year's two squads last April. Twenty made varsity, 17 junior varsity.
The ability to do a back handspring is one requirement for a varsity team member. Other qualities O'Neilllooks for are tumbling ability, clean moves and enthusiasm.
The team cheers for the football and basketball teams and competes three or four times per year. Normal three-hour practices grow longer as competitions approach. The team takes only one month off per year -- right after basketball season.
"We're like a family, we spend so muchtime together," senior Kate Kennedy said.
Added Monroe, "During the school year I eat two meals a week, tops, with my parents."
Twosets of new uniforms for this year cost $25,000, which the team raised through pizza sales and a yard sale.
Despite O'Neill's demanding approach -- among county schools, only Howard has followed Atholton's lead and adopted a conditioning program for its cheerleaders -- the team's respect for her is obvious.