Past the glitter, hair ribbons, and the red and white uniforms lies a potentially painful reality for some Miami University cheerleaders.
“When they cheer it can weaken their bodies for the rest of their lives,” explained Miami Cheerleading Coach Cindi McDaniel.
Cheerleading injuries accounted for the most student-athlete insurance claims, second only to football, in a seven-year study from the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Catastrophic Injury Insurance Program.
Miami trainers said the campus’ team has been very fortunate in avoiding life-threatening injuries this past season, and Athletic Trainer Jen Detwiler at McCullough-Hyde Physical Therapy has not seen any cheerleading-related injuries from Miami this year. She thinks it is because cheerleading coaches are starting to understand the levels of strength training involved.
Yet Detwiler has seen Miami cheerleaders in the past, but most of the injuries she sees now are at young level where the athletes are less physically mature.
“Right now the younger schools – middle school, high school – will see things on TV or at a Miami game, they will see a stunt and try and do it themselves and that is when they get hurt,” Detwiler said.
Junior and Miami cheerleader, Nathan Miller, explained that the season lasts almost the entire year, as the team starts practicing before classes to be ready for the first home football game. They continue practicing twice a week until the season officially ends, which will be with the football spring scrimmage Friday, April 20.
Miami Assistant Athletic Trainer Kevin Morley has worked with the Miami squad for several years and agrees that people don’t realize the dangers associated with cheering.
“I think most people, when they think of cheerleading, think about what happened at their high school,” Morley said. “They see dance teams and think about what they see at (Cincinnati) Bengals games. Collegiate level and competitive cheerleading is tumbling, stunting and is considerably more dangerous than that.”
Miller said the university requires an athletic trainer and a head coach to be present at every game and practice to help avoid long-term injuries, by tending to them immediately.
The NCAA also provides rules and regulations, many of which are new, to govern lifts and stunts and ensure they are legal and safe. All coaches must undergo certification to be able to instruct.
Sophomore Bethany Brisbin explained how stunts have taken her off the gym floor and onto TV. She stepped onto MTV’s reality show Made in fall 2006, when junior Julian Hutchinson was selected to coach a student attempting to make her high school’s cheerleading team.
Brisbin recently re-injured her wrist, broken two years ago in a car accident. She explains the re-injury as a gradual process, aggravated by tumbling and stunting.
After two years of hard work she will not be able to return to the team next year.
“Cheerleading since fourth grade, I’ve always loved being a part of a team and the friendships and bonds that come with that,” Brisbin said. “I like being a part of a good group of people. The rewards are based on personal rewards, not anything else. It’s been a huge part of my life and I’ll miss it.”
Miller played soccer and wrestled in high school and doesn’t think those who question the competitiveness of cheerleading understand what it takes.
“My first question is ‘can you do this?'” Miller said. “It takes a couple years to learn what I have and to perform like I can. I work out three to four times (a week) in a weight room to do what I do. It takes a lot out of you.”
Miller is currently suffering from chronic back pain, and Detwiler explained that on a collegiate cheerleading squad, numerous cheerleaders will have back and shoulder problems.
“If their technique is off or their partner is off on timing, even just a little bit or if a partner isn’t sticking their stunt and starts to fall, the male cheerleaders have to support that,” Detwiler said.
Miller hopes that having time off in the summer will allow his injuries to heal.
“The back pain is from overuse and it bothers me after a few practices, (and with) it being the end of the school year we’ve cheered since the third week in August, ” Miller said.
Miami football team’s defensive lineman Joe Coniglio not only considers cheerleading a sport but also respects the team’s dedication.
“I feel like it’s definitely a sport,” Camiglo said. “Not a scholarship sport, but still a sport. There’s a lot of risks that go into it and (the cheerleaders) don’t get as much of a reward out of it. I think people really do it for the love more than anything else.”
The university does not offer cheerleading scholarships and Miller said the trainers are not paid extra to be at cheerleading practices and games, unlike other sports.
Lacking an official practice facility, the squad practices on the marble floors of Millett Hall, relying on mats to save their knees and ankles from impact injuries.
According to Miller, sometimes a grouping of 8-by-4 foot mats “just doesn’t cut it,” like a 20-by-20 foot spring floor could.
“Stunts just don’t stay on 8-by-4 foot mats,” Miller said. “It scares me to death when a stunt moves off the mats. We can’t learn all the stuff that we want to learn on a tile floor, with a spring floor it’s a lot more safe.”
But the floor doesn’t scare Brisbin.
“Personally, I’ve been thrown around all my life so it doesn’t really phase me, but I know that fear of a hard floor bothers a lot of people,” Brisbin said.
McDaniel said that one of the struggles has been finding sufficient facilities.
“I’ve got 24 kids and they don’t have preferred scheduling,” McDaniel said. “So finding a time to practice can be difficult. You have to be comfortable with your team, your teammates.”
But accidents do happen, no matter how skilled or comfortable the squad is with each other.
McDaniel said the injuries she sees are in equal proportion for men and women.
“I think it could be 50/50,” McDaniel said. “With the lifting, it’s like a weightlifter. If you lift, their backs hurt … I can compare it to a football player tackling, years later there’s back pain. I had a girl with a metal plate in her wrist from tumbling and stunting.”
Many cheerleaders point to the camaraderie between the team and McDaniel for why they continue with the risky activity.
McDaniel keeps in touch with many of her athletes and after her mother passed away earlier this year, a few Miami cheerleading alumni traveled to visit McDaniel.
But it wasn’t just her old cheerleaders that were concerned for McDaniel. When she had to miss an important competition, Brad Bates, director of intercollegiate athletics, traveled with the team.
McDaniel said she was touched when she received a phone call from Bates.
“He called and said, ‘Your kids are great – just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing,’ and that was it but it meant so much,” McDaniel said. “That’s Miami and that’s what makes our program different, the support from the top.”