Cheers & Whispers

In the world of cheerleading, tiny Greenup, Ky., is in the big time. But a new book has reminded everyone that it's still a small town.

April 04, 1999|By Sarah Pekkanen | Sarah Pekkanen,sun staff

Rachel Brown had dreamed of this moment since she was 5 years old. She stood on the stage in her high school auditorium, staring down at the rows of parents, teachers, neighbors and fellow students. Despite the chill of this February evening, it seemed as if the entire town of Greenup, Ky., had come out to celebrate.

One by one, the principal called the names of a dozen girls. When Rachel's turn came, she joined the others at center stage. All wore white satin jackets emblazoned in gold with the words "National Champs 1999." Applause rang through the auditorium.

The cheerleaders had done it again.

For the ninth time in 18 years, the squad from little Greenup County High School had come home triumphant from the national cheerleading championships. After their victory in Orlando, Fla., cheerleaders from Japan clamored for their photographs; Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug sought them out for an ESPN interview; passengers applauded them on the flight home.

Through it all, Rachel knew the sweetest celebration awaited them in Greenup. A sign of congratulations would fly above the high school, where a cake-and-punch party would begin as soon as the girls stepped off the plane. Local companies would send bouquets. Everyone would point; little girls would squeal as they passed by. Once again, the Greenup girls would be the heroes of their small town.

As she stood basking in the applause, Rachel felt as though the humiliation of the 1998 competition had finally been erased. She had stumbled badly, and Greenup had placed seventh. The team hadn't been asked to pose for a milk mustache advertisement, like the previous year's squad. Rachel could hardly bear going home.

She had locked herself in her Orlando hotel room all day, sobbing, but after returning to Greenup, her determination grew even stronger. She trained relentlessly, taking private tumbling classes after three hours of cheerleading practices each day. And on weekends, she drove to a college an hour away for stunt lessons. When she tore a tendon weeks before the February championships, she taped her loose kneecap and smiled through the pain.

For Rachel, this victory was about more than bringing honor to her hometown. It meant redemption.

As she stepped off the stage, teachers hugged her. But instead of congratulations, some whispered condolences. Fear gripped her: This can't be happening. Not when she had finally made everything right.

Then a man with a notebook approached and asked, "Are you Rachel?"

And Rachel knew that the moment she had dreamed of was over.

Driving through this stretch of northeastern Kentucky, you won't pass any museums, or shopping malls, or even movie theaters. Greenup's population is just 1,200. (The high school, which draws students from neighboring areas, is almost twice as big as the town itself.) The surrounding hills are a checkerboard of farmland; closer to the heart of Greenup, tidy rows of homes stand in clusters.

Here, people don't just know their neighbors' names, but also the names of the clerk at the Dollar Store and the checker at FoodLand -- who, come to think of it, are probably neighbors. In Greenup, there are no strangers -- "It's like 'Cheers,' " says one resident -- and that's how they like it.

There aren't many restaurants, just some fast-food places and a homestyle eatery where a recent night's special, spaghetti with meat sauce, cost $4.75. But residents never want for things to do. The fall brings football games, winter brings basketball, and spring means it's time to think about baseball. Not televised games, mind you, but pee-wee, JV and varsity matches in which Greenup kids are the stars and parents root from the sidelines. And, of course, there are the cheerleaders.

The Greenup girls don't just wave pom-poms. Their gymnastic and dance routines have elevated a sport traditionally dismissed as frivolous to a whole new level -- and have broadened the borders of this small town. Strangers drive for hours to watch them compete. But their most fervent fans are local: Whenever the team climbs aboard its bus, a caravan of cars follows.

"For the most part, people center their activities around their children, and the things their children are involved in," explains Rachel Brown's mother, Diana Brown. It's 8:45 on a Tuesday night, and she has spent the evening clustered with other moms and dads at Tammy Jo's gym, watching their daughters -- the cheerleaders -- practice tumbling.

Of course, every small town and big family has its share of problems. But crime here is virtually nonexistent, and when two cheerleaders were in troubled homes recently, no social workers arrived to lead them away. Instead, neighbors intervened, opening their homes and hearts. "We look out for one another," says Randy Peffer, a school adviser and the cheerleading team's sponsor.

But in February, Greenup became a different town almost overnight.

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