Terrapins' cheer team leaps into a national title


At the beginning of the 2003 school year, they didn't exist. Now, they're the 2006 national champions.

When the University of Maryland's competitive cheer squad dethroned the five-time consecutive national champion Louisville Cardinals, it marked a watershed moment for what had been an obscure club sport, with competitors paying their own way. The Terps, by contrast, are a full-fledged varsity program -- the only one in the country -- offering full and partial scholarships.

Not to be confused with the Terrapin Spirit Squad that enlivens Maryland fans at basketball and football games, the 34 members of the cheer team are recognized as athletes on a par with their peers in other varsity sports.

Thank Title IX, the 1972 federal civil rights legislation that decreed equality in college athletics.

In 2003, Maryland needed two more varsity women's sports teams to achieve parity, and Lura Fleece, who had coached the spirit squad for 11 years, saw an opportunity. School administrators approved her idea to confer varsity status on the sport, which has been growing in popularity thanks to exposure on cable television.

"As long as our primary focus was competition, then they said we could do whatever we wanted," Fleece said.

Unlike other Terp sports, competitive cheer is not regulated by the NCAA, coming under the umbrella of the National Cheerleaders Association, which held its national championships last week at Daytona Beach, Fla.

Athletes perform

The all-female squad's performance -- with a jump-to-tuck sequence, double-full baskets, and human pyramids stacked three women high, won over the judges.

If all this sounds complicated, just know that it involves a padded mat, women hurling other women into the air, twisting, flipping and a lot of tumbling.

Cheerleading at this level is two parts gymnastics, one part dance. And it takes hard work to be the best, said co-captain Olivia Odom, a sophomore from Gainesville, Fla.

Her biography on the Terps athletic Web site says that she "did not cheer for her high school," but instead competed with the Florida Elite All Stars, a top competitive cheer club.

"It was such an amazing feeling. I just felt like those two years of work that we put in had finally paid off," Odom said of the Terps victory. "I feel like we won this championship at practice. No team works as hard as we do."

The routines, which take two minutes and 15 seconds, are nearly scientific in their complexity and a drain on the body, said Fleece, who was a cheerleader while a student at Maryland.

During the season, which lasts from September to April, the team practices routines for about three hours a day, five days a week. Two days a week, they lift weights -- not pompoms -- and do cardiovascular exercises.

"It's a lot of repetitions and just building your endurance," said senior Jennifer Carr, a Hereford High School alumna who was on the spirit squad before moving over to the competitive squad two years ago.

"You just go hard every time, so that when it counts you can hit it flawlessly," she said.

Team members said they hoped winning the championship would help to dispel the notion of cheerleading as an eye-catching complement to a sporting event, rather than a sport in its own right.

Not just cheerleaders

"We have a very successful team of not just cheerleaders, but athletes," said Odom. I think that by winning this it really proves that this is a real sport, and that we will prevail if given the opportunity."

Three years ago, the team finished seventh in the national competition. In the 2004-2005 season, after becoming a varsity sport, the team finished second.

Since Athletics Director Debbie Yow approved the team's varsity status, Fleece has been hearing from coaches from other colleges and universities who want to make a similar transition.

Fleece credited Yow with leading the way. "We've had a lot of calls from a lot of universities."

In the world of competitive cheering, the University of Louisville team was top dog. For five consecutive years, their team tumbled, tossed and pyramided their way to national championships.

Role reversal

Last year, when the Terps finished a close second to the Cardinals, they finished first in the preliminary round.

This year, Maryland finished second in the preliminary, but prevailed in the final round with a score of 9.31 out of a possible 10. Louisville posted a 9.18. Fleece compared the scoring to the way figure skating is graded, with judges gauging a team's strength across several categories, such as form and choreography.

"All the other colleges were just crazy for us," said Fleece. "They wanted someone to beat Louisville. Everyone kept coming up to us saying, `Please beat Louisville.'"

Fleece, who is leaving her coaching job to move to South Florida with her husband, said she feels comfortable walking away.

"It was a great way to end and I know the team can stand on its own now," she said. "Right now, we have the top cheerleaders in the country. From here on out we're going have a dynasty, because it just keeps getting better and better."

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