A new perspective on a familiar sport

Shawn Johnson joined ESPN as a commentator for the 2013 National High School Cheerleading Championships. Courtesy Shawn Johnson

Go watch a varsity cheerleading competition, and give me one reason why it shouldn’t be an Olympic sport.

I’m serious. Cheerleaders possess many of the same skills as gymnasts but with an added element of difficulty: When they do handstands and flips, they are often doing them over another cheerleader’s hands, not on solid, immovable ground.

Sounds hard, right? A lot of what I saw when I covered the National High School Cheerleading Championship in Orlando for ESPN a few weeks ago absolutely blew my mind. The skills performed were incredible.

In the gymnastics world, some think cheerleading is something you do if you’re burned out or decide in high school that you want a social life. I have to confess that I went into the competition with a similar mind-set: “Oh, it's cheerleading, it's not quite as hard.” It was, I thought, the sort of thing I would have done in high school if I’d had the time and wanted to unwind from gymnastics.

I was so wrong. Cheerleading is an intense sport, and those who participate in it take it very seriously. While gymnastics is a very individual sport where you’re constantly in your own head and not really socializing with others on the competition floor, cheerleaders are as much a team as the teams they support.

In one way, gymnastics and cheerleading are very similar: The athletes involved are truly passionate and dedicated to their craft. Yet in gymnastics, we don’t see that enthusiasm come out except in rare moments (or in NCAA gymnastics, where athletes do let loose a bit more.) That’s what made it a pleasure to talk to the cheerleaders behind the scenes in Orlando -- they were so excited about what they were doing and allowed to let it out in interviews and on the floor.

For some reason, there’s a bit of an unwritten rule in gymnastics that doesn’t always allow us to show how much we love doing what we do. I think a lot of it has to do with the focus required: You’re balancing on a four-inch beam, and it’s ingrained in you from a very young age that if you don't take it all very seriously, you'll make mistakes.

It’s funny, though, because I learned from the national cheerleading competition that when you're able to show that you're genuinely having fun, you perform better. That’s something gymnastics could learn from cheerleading. When was the last time you saw an elite gymnast jump off the floor podium after a routine and be so excited that she started to yell and scream as though she had accomplished a major goal in her life? Because hitting a beam routine in a big competition merits exactly that.

All in all, I gained a new respect for the sport of cheerleading. The athletes are very gifted -- and they have fun, too. It’s really the best of both worlds.

Shawn Johnson was a four-time Olympic medalist in gymnastics.