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Cheerleading enjoys a change from the routine

Once ridiculed, it has emerged as competitive sport

April 14, 2010

Ten girls sporting short shorts and high ponytails yell in unison, "One! Two! Three! Four! …"

A few of the girls have giant white bows in their hair, but every one of them wears matching white Nikes, which become evident as they kick their legs up into the air simultaneously.

Their cheerleading coach encourages the girls with "Good job, that was awesome!" as Kelly Clarkson's "Already Gone" bursts out in the background.

Now vs. then

It's not hard to identity cheerleaders in the midst of one of their routines.

What's not evident is how much cheerleading has changed in, say, a generation.

Christina Miklos, who has been coaching cheerleading for 3½ years at Franklin High School, was once a cheerleader herself there, and her memories aren't all cheery.

"People used to throw things at us!" she said, recalling an instant or two when, while cheering at a football game, she saw candy flying in her direction.

Cheerleading has changed for the better over the years, Miklos said. Crowds react positively to the squad at games.

"They respect us more because we've become more athletic," she said.

During a practice session in March, for instance, the routines included cheerleaders running across the blue tumbling mats and breaking out into round off back handsprings - as though it's easier than walking.

Competitive activity

That kind of athletic performance is a story shared by both Franklin and Greendale, among the schools in which cheerleading has become a competitive, award-winning effort.

"I was a cheerleader in high school, but it was so long ago that it is completely irrelevant to today's cheer," said Tina Zamjahn, the cheer coach for Greendale High School.

Zamjahn said that the sport has altered over time by splitting into two categories: sideline cheer (what a football or basketball fan would see the squad do at a game) and competitive cheer.

Greendale's cheerleading squad competes in five to six competitions per season which, said Zamjahn, begins in December and runs through March.

When Zamjahn's girls participate in competitive meets, their routine includes stunts, pyramids, tumbling, jumps and dance. With the exception of nationals, Zamjahn said her girls placed first in every competition they entered.

During the cheer season, which runs from June to March, Miklos' girls practice three times a week for three hours and twice a week for 2½ hours, along with a one-hour practice once a week of gymnastics.

Miklos said her girls compete in eight competitions a year. The girls won state this past season, for the second year in a row. They also won nationals in Chicago.

National recognition

The national meet that Franklin participated in was different from the nationals in which Greendale competed. The competitions were sponsored by different people.

Regardless of sponsorship, the competitions are high-level challenges with growing prestige.

In February, Greendale placed sixth in the National High School Cheerleading Championship in Orlando, Fla. The NHSCC gathers over 400 teams from around the nation.

Zamjahn said ESPN will air the competition April 24.

Growing the programs

Perhaps not surprisingly, both schools draw from talent that, like traditional high school sports, has already begun to develop long before high school.

Greendale has a feeder cheer program for fourth- to sixth-graders called the Greendale Wildcats, through the Park and Recreation department, said Zamjahn. The basics of cheerleading are taught so when the girls enter middle school they can begin competing.

The cheer program in Franklin begins with Franklin Middle School, where seventh- and eighth-graders can join squads, a precursor to a possible four-year high school activity.

To make the cut as a Greendale High School varsity cheer team member, tumbling skills are a requirement, Zamjahn said.

A sporting chance

It may be a matter of semantics, but cheerleading is difficult to classify, at least in terms of how others view such teams. They're athletic, yes, but are they sports teams?

"Other teams don't consider us a sport, but they do consider us athletic," said Miklos, noting that at Franklin High School, many of the cheerleaders are also in gymnastics.

Zamjahn, noting that "other teams are very supportive of our program," said Greendale High School considers cheerleaders as athletes - with the same code, the same rules and the same athletic awards as other sports.

For individual cheerleaders, such semantics aren't necessarily what matters.

"It'll keep me in shape, it's fun and I got to meet a lot of new people I love," said Alyssa Einert, a sophomore at Franklin High School who has been cheering for two years.

At the end of practice, the Franklin girls gather to hear Miklos give clean up orders. On command they roll up four large tumbling mats. Heftily, they bring the equipment up flights of stairs, smiling and laughing the entire time.

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