Cheerleader continues cheering after breaking neck

ST. LOUIS -- Kristi Yamaoka wasn't about to let a broken
neck and concussion keep her school spirit down.

The Southern Illinois University cheerleader lost her balance
during a routine Sunday and fell about 15 feet onto her head,
hushing the crowd of about 14,000 as she was placed in a back and
neck brace.

But the 18-year-old sophomore, in fair condition Monday and
expected to make a full recovery from chipped neck vertebra and a
concussion, let the stunned fans and national television audience
know right away that she was going to be OK.

When the pep band fired up SIU's fight song "Go Southern Go,"
Yamaoka gave a two-handed thumbs up from the gurney, then moved her
arms -- the only things not strapped down -- in time to the music and

"As long as my arms were functioning, I could do the fight
song," a groggy Yamaoka told The Associated Press by telephone
Monday morning from Saint Louis University Hospital.

"I just knew that it would be a little easier for my team and
squad to concentrate if they knew I was OK and not worrying about
me," she said. "I didn't want the team to get distracted. I
needed them to win for me."

They did. The Salukis beat Bradley 59-46 in the Missouri Valley
Conference tournament final, earning their fifth-straight berth in
the NCAA Tournament.

Yamaoka's routine from the gurney got her a standing ovation at
the Savvis Center and mention later on national sports TV
highlights packages. She said her season is over -- doctors have
told her not to perform for six weeks.

Yamaoka, of Springfield, Ill., said she doesn't remember the
midcourt tumble during a timeout with 3:25 left to play. She was
supposed to dismount to the front of the human pyramid, where two
cheerleaders were ready to catch her, said the squad's cheerleading
coach, Jennifer Graeff.

But Yamaoka lost her balance and tumbled off the back, landing
on her head.

"It's a little bit scary falling from 15 feet," Yamaoka said.
"That kind of thing doesn't happen often."

Yamaoka was motionless for a few minutes on the court, but says
she recalls hearing SIU's fight song and couldn't resist leading
the cheer as she was taken away in a brace.

"I do remember that, the fight song," she said.

Graeff urged Yamaoka to stay still, fearing her cheer could hurt
her more. But Graeff saw that the medical crews at Yamaoka's side
didn't seem to have much of a problem with the impromptu show of
spirit, so Graeff let it go.

"She didn't want to leave the floor. She said, 'Just let me
finish the game,"' Graeff said Monday. "That's Kristi -- 100
percent school spirit."

Yamaoka asked about whether anyone had videotaped the game,
specifically the last 4 minutes, Graeff said.

"I just thought she wanted to see the fall," Graeff said.
"But she wanted to see how the Salukis did."