Pediatricians want cheerleading designated as sport because of injury risks

QND cheerleader Kelli Meyer, right, supports a cheerleader's feet as she is held high and then dropped to the cheerleaders' arms. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)
Posted: Nov. 26, 2012 9:53 am Updated: Dec. 17, 2012 10:36 am
Kelli Meyer, right, and other QND cheerleaders during a recent basketball game. (H-W Photo/Michael Kipley)

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Kelli Meyer has cheered from the sidelines as her squad cheered for the team and the fans in the stands.

As her friends perform lifts, pyramids and basket flips, a training injury kept Kelli grounded for 10 months. After shuffling through doctors and allowing her ankle reconstruction to heal, Kelli will now do stunts, cheer and compete.

"I just did a simple roundoff and landed it completely wrong," Kelli said. "It really didn't seem like that big of a deal."

Dr. Jim Daniels of Quincy was one of several doctors to examine Kelli's injury. Daniels is a Southern Illinois University School of Medicine professor of family and community medicine, adjunct professor of orthopedic surgery and director of the school's primary care sports medicine fellowship.

While some cheerleaders tumble from pyramids in front of large crowds, Daniels said cheerleading injuries most often occur during training.

"What usually happens is that more severe injuries in front of people get more attention," he said.

Accidents happen both on the field and in the gym. Sprains and strains account for 53 percent of all cheering injuries, according to a November 2012 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Daniels said cheerleading is often perceived as a dangerous sport because of the catastrophic incidents captured on camera during games and competitions.

The report notes that the injury rate remains fairly low in cheerleading, but in the past 25 years, cheerleading has accounted for more than 66 percent of catastrophic injuries in female high school age athletes. The pediatrics academy has asked for states to categorize cheerleading as a sport, which would implement more regulations and increase safety among participants.

Daniels said that most schools already treat the squads as athletes, especially at the college level.

"I know of no college or university that does not treat their cheerleading team as another sport," Daniels said.

He said high schools also must follow detailed regulations. Kelli's mom, Terri Meyer, watched her daughter cheer from the side and nurse an ankle reconstruction back to mobility, but she also commended the Quincy Notre Dame cheerleading program and coach Tracy Grant for their strict safety procedures. She explained that the school does an exceptional job of finding coaches for all their sports, cheerleading included.

"She makes sure that everyone is exceptionally safe, and I trust her," Terri said.

Cheerleading has evolved from a peppy accessory for men's athletic teams to an intense competition. While squads still lead the fans in the stands, they also compete and follow an athletic program of their own.

"It takes work if you want to go out, and you want to look good and you want to be safe a represent the school and the squad," Grant said.

Kelli quickly agreed. As she sat in athletic gear prepping for practice, she mused about her favorite T-shirt that read, "Wimps lift weights. Cheerleaders lift athletes."

Kelli and the girls in her squad do more than wave pompons and put on a uniform. They run the mile, practice often, lift weights and, yes, just as the shirt says, they lift athletes.

"It's just like any other sport," Kelli said. "You get out of it what you put into it."

To excel, the girls follow a progression method. The squad solidifies the less-daring stunts before moving onto something tougher, and it incorporates a safety circle around all new stunts. Grant never forces a girl into a stunt she's uncomfortable with.

"It's just like in football," Daniels said. "You don't see real heavy duty plays early on."

Kelli and her friends may search the Internet looking at all-star routines, but many of those intense tricks are not legal in high school. High school-age cheerleaders may only flip a teammate to an approved point. Pyramids may only reach two layers tall. Squads that push outside regulations may pay fines or lose eligibility to compete. The regulations Grant abides by mimic the recommendations the pediatrics academy called for in its report.

Despite the safety measures, accidents such as Kelli's will occur. While advancing stunts poses a risk, these stunts are practiced in safe settings at length before they're brought before a large crowd.

In her nine years as a QND cheer coach, Grant has never seen a catastrophic incident. Girls have dealt with sprains, bruises and, in one case, even a broken nose, but nothing life-threatening.

"Even the best trained squads can have injuries, because it happens," Grant said.

In Kelli's case, the roundoff flared up an old basketball injury. She stifled the pain and competed on the injury. She felt a sense of dedication to her squad, and she wanted to continue. But when the pain didn't wane, she spoke up and sought medical attention.

"It kept bothering me," Kelli said. "At basketball games, I could barely stand for half of the game."

Now healed, Kelli is back to progression. Since her injury, her endurance had diminished. Being off her ankle for 10 months has decreased the number of stunts she can do without feeling winded.

"I can definitely tell that I'm really out of shape, because we'll do one stunt and I'm really out of breath," Kelli said.

A shortage of breath won't stop Kelli from giving her sport -- and her squad -- her all. The roundoff robbed her of a season, but she has every intention of shining as QND has kicked off its basketball season, and she plans to travel with the squad to Orlando for the Russell Athletic Bowl game in December.

"If I say I'm going to do something, I'm not going to do it halfway," Kelli said. "I'm going to pursue it 110 percent."