These aren’t your grandmother’s cheerleaders. Cheerleaders don’t just cheer for the athletes. They consider themselves athletes, too. “One hundred percent, yes,” agreed Kathie Lewis, cheerleading coach at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree.


 

These aren’t your grandmother’s cheerleaders.


Cheerleaders don’t just cheer for the athletes. They consider themselves athletes, too. “One hundred percent, yes,” agreed Kathie Lewis, cheerleading coach at Archbishop Williams High School in Braintree.


“It’s different than a contact sport, but we are a team and they work out usually six days a week.


“There’s stunting, which involves lifting others in the air, and sometimes you’re throwing and catching them; sometimes you’re holding their feet underneath them in an extended position.


“Then there’s tumbling, which, for the lack of a better word, is gymnastics. Gymnastics is such a huge part of cheerleading now, you need to have those skills to be competitive. So the kids work on tumbling all year round. It’s such a big-time commitment, as any varsity sport is.”


Katie Mee, the coach at Whitman-Hanson, concurs.


“I think sometimes they’re even more of an athlete than the athletes,” Mee said. “I think everyone underestimates the difficult (routines) that these girls are challenged to do. I don’t think people really realize how hard, how dangerous, this can be.


“People think it’s all about singing some cheers at a game, but you have to be very athletic and in shape in order to do what they do. Especially the way these girls perform. It’s very hard, and it takes a lot of talent. These girls have it.


“A lot of girls were trained in gymnastics and they turned around and became a cheerleader.”


As with any varsity sport, cheerleaders compete at various levels, taking part in league, regional, state and national championships. A national competition is coming up – the U.S. Spirit Cheerleading and Dance Team championships March 26-28 at Orlando, Fla. – and Archbishop Williams, Abington and Whitman-Hanson will send their squads.


Each of the teams will pay for the trip through rounds of successful fundraising.


In Florida, each team will have 21/2 minutes on March 27 and 2 minutes on March 28 to perform before the judges, with each day’s scores combined to produce a final score. Five minutes to show the nation what they can do puts a lot on the cheerleaders.


“It’s a ton of pressure, but they’re used to it,” said Abington coach Trisha Hitchcock. “At the league and regional competitions, they get only one shot to do it. You’re either done or you advance to the next round. In the nationals, they at least get to go once on Saturday and once on Sunday.”


Elements judged in competitive events include the quality of the cheers, pyramids and stunting, technique and execution, choreography of motion and dance, jumps, degree of difficulty and overall presentation.


Winners in each category will take home a national team trophy, medals, jackets and team banner; runners-up and third-place teams also will receive awards.


The cheerleaders perform during the fall at football games and in winter at basketball games, yet they train for a good part of the year to perfect their routines.


“They work their butts off,” said Lewis, the Williams coach. “We have tryouts in June, they work out on their own during the summer and come back for double sessions in August.” Stunting can be a bit daunting to newcomers, and the fear factor causes some to drop out, but those who stick with it find it rewarding.


“I think kids who first start are fearful,” Lewis said. “It takes a little while to get used to.”


While some cheerleaders excel in specific elements of their routines, they are mostly on an equal footing with their teammates. The “star system” is largely non-existent.


“There are girls who certainly have more advanced skills than other girls do when it comes to tumbling,” Lewis said, “but all have strengths and weaknesses, which is what makes them a team. They all add their piece of it at some point during the routine.”


So, girls of the South Shore will soon head south to Florida. No matter how they do – W-H’s Mee says, “Bring home the gold!” – perhaps the players should start cheering for the cheerleaders. After all, they’re athletes, too.


The Patriot Ledger