You see the three of them bouncing down the hall -- little red-and-black pleated skirts swirling, bodies fit and trim, hair pulled up in identical red-ribboned ponytails -- and you think all those old stereotypes of high school cheerleaders are true, after all.
Then you hear them talk about cheerleading in intense, reverent tones, as if itwere a religion. And you know how wrong you are.
At North County High School, where cheerleading is serious business, these three seniors are among the nation's best, specially chosento join the 250 top cheerleaders at the Hula Bowl in Hawaii in January. They are as committed to their sport -- and heaven help anyone who argues with that definition -- as any football or soccer star.
There's Ashley Boudris, 16, a homecoming queen and cheerleading captain who leads daily practices the way U.S. Grant drilled infantry troops during the Civil War. "Cheerleading is my life," she says.
There's Jennifer Emrich, 17, who's so devoted to cheerleading that she refused to bow out of a competition last year even though she was desperately ill. "She was throwing up, but only when she could," says coachMargaret Smith. "She never missed a beat. Of the 16 girls who were there, 14 didn't even know it had happened."
Finally, co-captain Amy Luebehusen, 17, who says, "We are not dizzy little jumping-around girls."
But they are teen-agers, and they're giggling with excitement over the prospect of going to Hawaii together.
"We're so excited," says Jennifer. "I just want to go now!"
"I want to work on my tan," says Ashley.
"We all want to have the same outfits when we go down there," says Amy.
The girls were picked for the trip last year during the Eastern Cheerleading Association's national competition in Williamsburg, Va. The 16-member North County squad placed first of 18 varsity teams, and Amy, Ashley and Jennifer were singled out bythe judges as "All-American standouts," eligible to participate in the Hula Bowl and compete for thousands of dollars in scholarships.
The three, who have paid their own way, will be in Waikiki from Jan.3 to 12. The Hula Bowl, a college all-star game, will be played Jan.11. The cheerleaders' schedule calls for them to practice every day they're there, from 6 a.m. to noon, for the Hula Bowl half-time show and a parade.
One event they're especially looking forward to is aboat cruise with some of the college football players. "My boyfrienddoesn't like that idea," says Jennifer, launching an intense discussion of howinsignificant boyfriends are compared with cheerleading.
"When you sign a contract to be a cheerleader," Ashley explains, "you have to understand it's your first priority after classes. It comesbefore boyfriends, it comes before parties.
"My boyfriend knows it comes before him, and he just has to live with it," she says. "If my coach said to drop my boyfriend, right then and there I would say, 'See ya!' "
Jennifer agrees. Her boyfriend, she says, "puts football before me, and I put cheerleading before him, and that's how it works. I'll still have cheerleading when he's gone." Besides, she adds,after a moment's thought, "Boyfriends cause more pain than cheerleading."
Smith, a 50-something teacher at Lindale-Brooklyn Park Middle who has been coaching cheerleaders for 30 years, laughs delightedlywhen she hears about these comments. "I guess they really have been listening to me," she says.
Smith, who has no children of her own,admits that she sometimes plays mother, offering such advice as, "Ifa boyfriend gives you a ring, don't give it back."
Boudris describes Smith as "awesome."
"She expects 100 percent out of every girl," says Amy. "I guess that's why we're so good."
Smith's cheerleaders practice three to four hours a day, from June through March -- "and it's not just standing there and clapping and screaming," says Amy. It's not like soccer and lacrosse, either, "where you just run up and down the field."
Today's top cheerleaders have to be real athletes, capable of jumping and, strong enough to either hold another girl on their shoulders or balance on top of someone else's. The nation's very best squads are using more and more gymnastics, with eye-stopping tumbling runs and twists, Smith says.
Ashley can do some of these fancy moves, but the North County girls' real strengths are theirjumping ability, the crispness and tightness of their moves, and their penchant for entertainment and personality.
"SMILE!" screams Ashley, during practice. "Turn it ON!"
Dizzy little jumping-around girls? Think again.