Cheer Club gives Howard something to shout about Cheerleader as athlete: Rigorous practice schedules and demanding routines point to the changing focus of this activity. It's not just rah-rah stuff anymore. These days, it's mainly about competition.

April 17, 1996|By Vikki Valentine | Vikki Valentine,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A Howard County cheerleading group is making a name for itself despite tough competition from states such as Texas, Kentucky and Tennessee -- areas known for producing powerhouse squads.

The Howard County Cheer Club -- a group of girls ages 8 to 14 who meet in West Columbia and specialize in tossing one another into the air -- won first place at the Canadian-American International Cheerleading Competition at Myrtle Beach, S.C., three weeks ago.

Last weekend, they won third place at the National Cheerleading Association's Kings Dominion Spirit Weekend.

In the contests, the club's 23 girls faced 18 squads, most of them from southern states, which are famous for their cheerleaders.

"No one knows who we are or where we're from, so to have Howard County, Maryland, win, it's great," said Donna Light of Elkridge, whose daughter, Andrea, is on the squad.

This is not a megaphone and pompon group from yesteryear. These days, as 8-year-old Cheer Club member Tracy O'Hargan's T-shirt proclaims, "Cheerleaders are athletes."

The Clarksville girl is a "flier" in the group. That means she is thrown high into the air so she can perform horizontal twists and toe-touches. At other times, girls only a few years older hoist her into the air and hold her by one foot while she balances.

Below Tracy, club members perform consecutive handsprings across the floor while others execute various jumps.

When the music isn't playing during the dance routine, the girls are rhythmically cheering and marching into stunt positions.

Cheerleading is a big business. The girls invest about $1,000 a year to cover the costs of uniforms, competition and travel.

"As a first-year mother, I was pretty naive," said Sue O'Hargan, Tracy's mother, about the money and time involved in keeping the Pointers Run Elementary third-grader in the group.

But it's worth it, she says, because "this child has learned so much."

The girls view cheerleading stereotypes as ridiculous. Rigorous practice schedules and demanding routines point to the changing focus of cheerleading.

Mount View Middle School student Missy Shrader, 14, says she injured her shoulder three times in one day performing the same routine at two competitions, but never broke her routine.

"Athletes, athletes," said 14-year-old Andrea Light of Atholton High.

"It's a sport," she added. "Trust me."

Competitions are the highlight of the cheerleading season, giving the girls a chance to be in the spotlight, said Pamela Carter, who coaches the Cheer Club and Atholton's junior varsity and varsity squads.

Even when they're practicing for games during the fall Pop Warner youth football season, their sights are on the contests that start in January, said Cheer Club captain Carly Hughes, 13. Their football team, the Howard County Trojans, is almost secondary in importance, team members said.

"Our games aren't our rep, our competitions are," said Carly, a seventh-grader at Wilde Lake Middle School.

Just as the club is helping to redefine cheerleading as a sport, it is showing the cheerleading giants from the South that great squads can have members from different schools.

The three-times-a-week practices draw girls from all over the county to Atholton High.

By bringing the girls together on one squad, said Mrs. Carter, the Cheer Club is improving sportsmanship on future high school squads.

Rivalries among cheerleading squads can be a problem, Mrs. Carter said.

Snubs, sneers and name-calling come with the territory.

But girls who have cheered together remember one another on later squads as friends, not just as competitors.

"I had an Atholton JV squad and we went to Oakland Mills, and when they saw their JV cheerleaders, they ran to each other," Mrs. Carter said. "That's when I really saw that it was all really worth it."

Pub Date: 4/17/96

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