Cheerleading is more than pompoms, pep

High school athletes often dream about winning a championship, and those who do win get to proudly show off their championship rings. But cheerleaders across the country aren't working for a ring, they want to wear the white jacket.

White jackets are awarded to the winning squads at the UCA National High School Cheerleading Championships, which air on ESPN.

Of the nearly 400,000 high school cheerleaders in the United States, about 114,000 cheer on competitive squads, according to the 2007-08 high school athletics participation survey distributed by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

A year's worth of practice boils down to one 2½-minute routine that combines tumbling, dancing, cheering and stunting.

"It's relieving at the end when you know you've worked so hard and put all you can into it," said Meredith Goode, a senior co-captain for Bob Jones High School (Madison, Ala.). "And the extra time out of practice to accomplish what anyone would want, to be national champions, so it's a great feeling."

Bob Jones won the Super Varsity division at this year's championship.

Goode says that her squad, which cheers for varsity football as well as at competitions, practices in the mornings for two hours and then again after school. Some schools with competitive teams even have a cheer class during the day so cheerleaders can work on stunting and tumbling.

Because cheerleading incorporates a variety of skills, cheerleaders must keep in top physical form.

Cheer Terms

Base -- The person who holds up or tosses the flyer in a build.

Build -- A stunt where a base remains on the ground while lifting or throwing a flyer in the air.
Flyer -- The person put up on the top of a build.

Spotter -- The person who helps the base to lift up the flyer. Spotters must be prepared to make an unexpected catch if needed.

Transitions -- Moves that link two or more builds together without bringing the flyer down all the way.
Thigh Stand -- A build where the flyer stands on the thighs of two bases who are in a lunge position.
Jumps -- Popular jumps include toe touches, herkies, hurdlers and double hooks.
Chant -- A short cheer with arm motions that is repeated.
Cheer -- A long cheer that incorporates stunting, tumbling and/or jumps.

"If they weren't in good shape there's no way they could do it," said Bob Jones High coach Tara Murphy. "I mean, if you're a base you have to have good upper-body strength, and if you're a top girl you have to keep yourself fit and trim. And endurance-wise, they all have to keep their running up for their breathing."

Running and conditioning are also big parts of practices for the MacArthur High School (San Antonio) cheerleaders.

"We're an organization made up of athletes, and they're truly the best athletes on campus," Seitz said. More than 2,500 students attend MacArthur.

Seitz points to acrobatic and gymnastic skills as examples of her squad's athleticism.

The MacArthur cheerleaders earned their white jackets by winning the Small Varsity Division 1 title in 2009. In addition to taking a daily in-school cheerleading class, the team practices for about two hours at least five days a week and goes to a gym to practice tumbling and stunting twice a week.

"We practice countless hours," said MacArthur senior Hailey Emerson, who is the head cheerleader this season. "We try just as hard as anyone on campus. The hardest part of cheer is probably time management. We all want to practice and become our best."

Becoming the best often means landing advanced stunts and tumbling passes in competition.

The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators writes rules for the maximum skills allowed in cheerleading at the high school and college levels. AACCA executive director Jim Lord says the rules apply both for competition and non-competition squads because the sport is so demanding.

"It's incredibly physical. I mean, think about what you're doing. ... You have to have great body awareness of a gymnast or dancer, you have to have the strength of a football player in order to hold people over your head and toss them in the air and catch them, you have to have the ability to do that for a two-hour game, and you obviously have to have stamina as well.

"And then when it comes especially to the competition side, the amount of power and strength you need in that 2½-minute time span is pretty high."

In addition to rules, AACCA also works with coaches and cheerleaders on safety education. Murphy says she and her Bob Jones squad take safety training classes each year at camp and go only to gyms with certified teachers.

Seitz says safety is important to the MacArthur cheerleaders. She starts every year at the very beginning with the basics -- thigh stands -- and works with the squad on the proper techniques, progressing to more difficult skills.

As cheerleaders build their skills, they sometimes happen onto new stunts or builds. Lord says that squads sometimes try a stunt that doesn't work out as expected but like the way the unexpected movement looks, and from it a new build is created.

"When we're trying new stuff, it gets kind of scary because we don't really know what we're doing, we're just trying to make stuff up," said Bob Jones co-captain Brooklynn Bradley.

When the Bob Jones cheerleaders practice new stunts, they do so on mats and take safety precautions.

"We don't drop people," said Goode, who is a base. "When we try new things we are spotting a lot."

With all of the physicality and athleticism, at its core cheerleading is still about bringing excitement and support to the school.

"When you're a cheerleader, you're a part of every single sport organization at the school," Seitz said.

Goode, who started cheering in seventh grade, says cheerleading in high school requires a lot more than she expected. She was used to the gymnastics and the cheering, but after adding all the stunting and jumps, she says cheerleading is tougher than other sports.

"I played soccer, [but cheerleading] just takes all your energy and time," Goode said. "But it's worth it in the end and we have a lot of great memories and we're always going to look back on it.

"It's tough. Most people are surprised how much we practice and how much time we put into it, but they know what we're all about. We're there to promote school spirit and to win and keep our winning tradition."

Julie Turner is an editor for ESPNRISE.com.