Forget pompoms, they're athletes

Cheerleading squads vie for others' cheers in high-flying routines

November 28, 1999|By Dan Thanh Dang | Dan Thanh Dang,SUN STAFF

It was all about height yesterday at the Greater Baltimore Cheerleading Open.

Dozens of ponytailed girls in short skirts flew through the air, flipped and tumbled across the Calvert Hall College high school gymnasium yesterday, only to land with two feet firmly planted on the ground and a smile stretched from ear to ear.

The higher the jump, the louder the screams.

The louder the screams, the bigger the smiles.

This was, after all, the regional championships where acrobatics, precision and personality racked up major points. Qualifying here practically guarantees a trip to the International Cheer and Dance Championships in March.

"It's a sport," said Robin Vahle, mother of 17-year-old Brian, who lifted his red Calvert Hall uniform's shirt at the end of an almost flawless routine to reveal a Superman shirt. "You don't think of it that way. You think it's more rah rah rah, sis boom bah. But it's really a sport."

`Got to look good, too'

The athletes in yesterday's competition can attest to that. Eight teams from the mid-Atlantic region -- made up of 5-year-olds to 18-year-olds from as far as Vienna, Va., and Seaville, N.J. -- took part in the event at the Towson high school.

They came armed with enough hair gel, curling irons and hair dryers to stock a small boutique.

Thinking of college

"This is a tough sport, but there is still that beauty pageant quality to all of this," said Beth Kenney, coach for both the Calvert Hall team and the Viper All-Stars from Harford County. "To win this, they've got to look good, too."

After all, many of the competitors want to win cheerleading scholarships for college. To do that, many practice three times a week year round for a couple of hours a day. They stretch and jump, dance and cheer. They perfect back flips and somersaults.

Then they take all those stunts and squeeze them into a 2-minute, 15-second routine that involves midair twists, double-base extensions and basket tosses.

`A manly thing to do'

This is ESPN-style cheerleading, not that pompom swishing that your mother knew. This cheerleading can cost hundreds of dollars a year to hire the best choreographer. This is cheerleading done strictly for competition, not to boost the spirits of a losing team.

"I played football before this until one of my friends told me to try out," said Ryan Rojek, 18, co-captain of the Calvert Hall team, which performed an exhibition routine after the competition. "It's really hard to convince the guys that it's a manly thing to do. But I dare them to come out and try it."

In other words, this is cheerleading not made for wimps.

`Really nerve-racking'

Sometimes, however, it can bring tears.

Just ask Priscilla Sorrell, as she comforted one of her cheerleaders, who fell on her back during a dismount.

"I'm a little worried," said Sorrell, who coaches the Vienna Youth Association Cheerleaders. "They haven't had a lot of practices because of the [Thanksgiving] holidays. It's really nerve-racking."

Sorrell isn't just a coach to this group of red, white and blue-uniformed girls, who are as young as 12 and old as 14. She nurses their bruises, massages their shoulders, fixes their bobby pins and cheers them on -- relentlessly.

On the sidelines, the cheering was no less intense. Parents shouted encouragement as they videotaped and photographed their spirited children.

"Look, my palms are sweaty," said Kelly McIntire, clutching a camcorder in one hand and a cell phone in the other, as her 14-year-old daughter, Amy, soared toward the ceiling rafters with the help of her American Eagle teammates from Damascus, in Montgomery County.

No end to practice

In the end, it was the Junior All-Star squad from Vienna that took the trophy home -- not just because they nailed almost every stunt, but because their division was the only one with more than one team competing in it.

"We're improving," said a smiling Kimberly Haines, 12, who is a member of the Carroll County-based Francis Scott Key Eagles team. While her team didn't win, the Eagles did qualify for the international championships, which means "a whole lot more practice," she said.

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