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Last updated: Sun. Jan. 05, 2014 - 04:06 am EDT

Cheerleaders push limits – and get hurt

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FORT WAYNE — Two bits! Four bits! Six bits! A dollar! Cheerleaders with health issues stand up and holler!

And there are a lot of them.

We are deep in the heart of hoops season in Indiana, where everything from cracker-box gyms to massive arenas is jammed with pep bands, throaty fans and basketball teams of all ages, shapes and genders.

While the games themselves are the main attraction for each team’s and town’s loyalists, part of the annual winter pageantry has been the swarm of fresh-faced, perky, bouncy, enthusiastic cheerleaders. These are the selected few – mostly female – who, from courtside, encourage their fan bases to stand, shout and stomp.

They’ve got spirit, yes they do. They’ve got spirit, how ’bout you?

You’ve seen them. Perhaps you’ve screamed with them. And just maybe you’ve been one of them. Whichever category you fall under – with “fall” being the operative word – by now you know the difference between the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders and the DeKalb Barons cheerleaders. You know the Colts cheerleaders have nothing in common with the Concordia cheerleaders.

While there is a smidgen of choreography, the professional teams’ cheer squads are mostly recognized for their calendar poses and close-up smiles into television cameras.

In contrast, high school and college cheerleaders are a collection of talented students, many of whom rival the athleticism of those they encourage. But many pay a price.

According to a 2012 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, cheerleading accounted for 65 percent of all direct catastrophic injuries to high school girl athletes and nearly 71 percent of all women college athletes between 1982 and 2009. And the number of participants in cheerleading is large, an estimated 3.6 million nationwide, the academy found.

Data from the Consumer Product Safety Commission showed that a group of researchers found the number of cheerleader-related hospital emergency room visits rose from 4,954 in 1980 to 6,911 in 1986. The numbers then soared to 16,982 in 1995, 22,603 in 2000, 24,674 in 2002 and 26,786 in 2007.

Cheerleading in 2013 is nothing like cheerleading in 1980, according to Bishop Dwenger coach Amy Gonzagowski, who has guided the Saints to eight national cheerleading championships, including titles in the past three years.

“Gymnastics, when I was in school, didn’t have any part in cheerleading – not until the last 10 or 15 years,” says Gonzagowski, a former Dwenger cheerleader who graduated in 1986. “It didn’t used to be that way. It was more like who could yell the loudest.”

That’s the way it used to be; sis-boom-bah, and all of that.

But because high school and college cheerleading has advanced to national competitions that encourage difficult gymnastics stunts, including with the girls and young women being tossed several feet into the air, the activity that was once confined to gymnasiums and football fields is pushing the boundary of safety.

“A competition routine, you’re on a mat, which is a benefit for doing harder skills,” Gonzagowski says. “Obviously, the danger element goes up when you’re doing harder skills. When you’re doing things for games, you’re trying to do things that the crowd will yell with. … In competition, you’re going to try to do the hardest skills you can possibly do, and each one of them has differentiating point values regarding how difficult the skill is.”

Last year’s Dwenger team won the national title with the help of senior Erin Grutsch, who missed most of the season when she tore an anterior cruciate ligament in her knee.

This year, senior Emily Budzon is battling her own injuries.

“I have uneven hips because of cheerleading, and my back is pretty bad. But I’ve never been seriously injured,” says Budzon, who cheers with her twin sister, Elizabeth.

In search of a solution and to help with the pain, Budzon says she has seen a chiropractor but no longer goes in for treatments.

“(The pain) never went away, so I just kinda gave up on it,” says Budzon, who, like her sister, is 5-feet-1, 110 pounds, and is considered a team “flier,” which is one of the more petite members of the team who soars the highest into the air during stunts.

When she was a cheerleader for four years at Churubusco High School and for one season at Ball State, Kassie Sinclair was also a flier. She serves as the general manager of marketing at IPFW and is also the university’s cheerleader coach.

It was during her sophomore year at Churubusco that Sinclair broke her tailbone as a cheerleader.

“I fell off the top of a pyramid,” Sinclair said. “The bases weren’t doing their part, and they just didn’t catch me.”

Although she avoided “flying” and doing stunts for a couple weeks because of the injury, Sinclair kept cheering.

Both Sinclair and Gonzagowski have high expectations for their teams, and not just from a performance standpoint. Good grades must be maintained. Fitness is a must, including weight training. Community involvement is requested and required. A physical examination is a must, as is proof of insurance.

In a Washington Post article, Cynthia LaBella, lead author of the Academy of Pediatrics paper and an associate professor of pediatrics at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, says, “These girls – and boys – are at risk for injury. This should be considered a sport, and these folks should be treated as athletes, not as entertainers.”

Which is why Gonzagowski says cheer coaches must have proper training similar to coaches for the men’s and women’s athletic teams.

“Cheer coaches are notorious throughout the country of being untrained,” Gonzagowski says. “The girls come in and say, ‘We saw this on YouTube and we want to do this,’ and they don’t have any of the basic skills to even try things like that. If more coaches were educated, we’d have a whole lot less injuries.”

Her concern is being addressed. Jim Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, said in the Washington Post article that cheerleading catastrophic injuries have dropped every year since 2005-06, when there were 12. There were three in 2009-10, which is the last year for which data was available.

Cheerleading’s governing body says it also concentrated improving training for coaches, along with changing rules and raising awareness of the sport’s dangers. Some maneuvers, many of them involving fliers, have been outlawed.

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