Cheerleading was at the center of Laura Jackson’s life since she began shaking pom-poms for a pee-wee football team in the third grade.
At 14, she dreamed of cheering in high school and then, maybe college. But on the day of tryouts for the freshman high school squad in Livonia, Mich., those plans were shattered.
That afternoon, as her turn arrived, she got ready to perform a back tuck, a challenging gymnastics move she’d learned just for tryouts. She eyed her spotter, a girl just three years older than herself, and took a running start across the gymnasium floor before launching into the flip.
She still doesn’t know quite what went wrong, but she didn’t make it all the way around; she smacked her neck against the ground, skidding so hard that a piece of her blond ponytail ripped from her scalp.
No one in the room realized how grave her injury was.
Her older sister, Jenna Jackson, also a cheerleader, says she watched the cheer coach and other teachers try to figure out what to do as Laura gasped for air, her face turning blue as she mouthed over and over, “Can’t breathe.”
Laura had broken her top two vertebrae in her neck, and the crushed bones kept pinching her brain stem, which made her heart stop and start, stop and start. And while several people in the gymnasium that day knew CPR, no one knew that it was something Laura desperately needed in that moment. “They thought because my heart was beating, I was OK,” Laura recalls.
Instead, she’s now a quadriplegic, unable to move a muscle from the neck down.
Cheerleading — not basketball, not softball, not even field hockey or ice hockey — is by far the most dangerous sport for girls . Cheer accounts for 65 percent of all catastrophic injuries in girls’ high school athletics, shows a recent report by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina.
That’s especially striking considering cheerleaders make up just about 12 percent of the 3 million female high school athletes in the U.S.
Devastating injuries soar
Frederick Mueller, director of the injury research center, has tracked down 73 cases of “catastrophic” injuries in U.S. cheerleaders over the past 26 years.
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“I’m not talking about sprains or strains or minor injuries,” Mueller explains. By catastrophic, he is referring to permanent disabilities, such as fractured skulls or broken necks — even two deaths.
“Cheerleading has changed dramatically, from females jumping up and down and shaking pom-poms to a gymnastics-type event where they’re throwing girls 25-30 feet in the air — and sometimes missing them on the way down,” Mueller said.
Nearly 30,000 cheerleaders are treated in emergency rooms each year, according to national estimates by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Many of these kids — the average age treated in the ERs was 14 ½ — go home and heal; some never do.
In 2007, 17-year-old Patty Phommanyvong was struck in the chest by a teammate’s fist as she plummeted from a stunt at a football game at her high school in Los Angeles; she’s now 19 and living in a nursing home, unable to move or eat or speak. In 2005, 14-year-old Ashley Burns of Medford, Mass., hit her stomach on another cheerleader’s shoulder while spinning down from an acrobatic move called a double down; she ruptured her spleen and died almost immediately. And in 2008, Wesley Patterson, 20, who had been recruited for one of the guy spots on the cheer team at Prairie View A&M in Prairie View, Texas, fumbled a turn while tumbling, and like Laura, he’s now a quadriplegic.
The number of ER visits from cheerleaders has tripled since the mid-1980s, when cheerleaders started becoming more like gymnasts in little skirts. (It’s also, cheer supporters point out, when cheerleading started to become more popular; increased participation helps to partly explain the surge in injuries.)
Pyramids, basket tosses and tumbling injuries top the list of dangerous stunts. And these high-flying moves are often performed on hard surfaces — dirt, grass, a gymnasium floor — with nothing separating the tumbler from the ground.
“Cheerleading is not taken seriously enough, even by the people who teach it themselves,” says Kimberly Archie, who founded the National Cheer Safety Foundation in Ontario, Calif., in 2008 after her daughter broke her arm in cheer. “They don’t realize that they’re asking kids to do acrobatics that put them at high risk.”
It seems the very argument cheerleaders must endlessly refute — that cheerleading isn’t a real sport — might be responsible for many of these injuries.
In most states, high school cheer is not considered an official sport, which can mean cheer doesn’t require the same safety equipment, limits on practice time or training for coaches that are enforced for other high school sports. In fact, just two states — Michigan and West Virginia — define high school cheer in exactly the same way as all other high school sports.
Thirteen states require cheer coaches to be certified by the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators (AACCA). But even certification only requires that coaches pass an online test; there’s no requirement for training in gymnastics or spotting techniques. And only about a dozen states regulate cheer according to the rules set by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). For high school football, on the other hand, all states follow the NFHS rulebook except Texas, which uses the NCAA college-level rules.
“There is no one [at the high school level] who acts as ‘cheer police.’ So if somebody is to break a rule or not follow a rule, I don’t know what the repercussions would be,” says Susan Loomis, the NFHS rulebook editor for spirit teams (that’s all cheer, dance and pom teams).
For instance, the NFHS rulebook recommends that a coach spot cheerleaders as they practice and perform.
This precaution wasn’t in place on May 12, 2003, the day Laura Jackson hit the floor neck-first at Stevenson High School. Her spotter was a fellow cheerleader.
And it never crossed the minds of Jackson’s family to check on any safety precautions. Cheerleading had been a tradition in their home. Two of Laura’s older sisters had been high school cheer squad captains.
While the sport had changed, the safeguards hadn’t. Laura’s oldest sister, Stephanie Amaim, is just five years older than Laura, but when she was in high school in the ‘90s, the cheerleaders mostly kept their feet on the ground.
“When my oldest sister was a cheerleader, they weren’t doing anything that [they’re] doing now,” says Laura, who’s now 21.
Stephanie, now 26, remembers her coach was just “someone’s mom.”
Laura's coach at the tryouts was a former cheerleader in her early-20s who was on her first day of the job; she was not yet a certified coach, says Daryl Jackson, Laura's father.
But seven years after Laura’s accident, the Jacksons try not to dwell on all the what-ifs: What if a trained coach had been there to catch Laura when she attempted her back flip, instead of a teen girl? Or what if the tumbling moves took place on a springboard surface — like gymnasts perform on — rather than a thin wrestling mat on a wooden gymnasium floor?
“I mean, when you’re 14, you don’t think anything is going to happen to you,” Laura says. “But I think if someone had shown me a girl like [I am now], I don’t think I would’ve done [that back flip], whether I was ready or not."
Michigan, where the Jacksons still live, is one of the two states that consider cheer a true sport, but even there, these safeguards aren’t mandatory.
“Right now we have rules that are more like suggestions,” says Archie, the cheer safety advocate. “It’s all very vague; all the terminology is vague. ‘A qualified coach should be watching the cheerleaders’ — what’s a qualified coach? They don’t define that. What’s a qualified spotter? You say a ‘mat’ — you could put a frickin’ doormat down. It doesn’t say, ‘2 1/4-inch foam,’ or anything like that.”
Lori Hyman, the athletic director of Stevenson High, refused to comment on whether the school had made any safety changes since Laura’s injury there.
Some safety improvements
Advocates say cheerleading is beginning to get a little safer.
Private “club” cheer, for instance, has become more and more popular. These “All-star” teams, which are competition focused and not associated with any school, require coaches to pass written and hands-on tests showing they can teach tumbling and stunt skills. And all routines are done on a spring floor. But these higher standards come at a price — joining cheer clubs can cost $1,000-$3,500 a year.
At the high school level, this July, the NFHS will begin offering an online cheer coach certification course, similar to the one by AACCA; but, again, it will be up to the individual states whether to require coach certification or not.
And the AACCA recently introduced its first set of rules banning two difficult stunts — basket tosses and double twisting dismounts — for the youngest cheerleaders: those on elementary, middle or junior high teams.
In some cases, however, changes coming to cheerleading may be more about protecting schools from lawsuits than protecting athletes. In Wisconsin last year, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that cheer is a contact sport, which means cheerleaders can’t sue the school district or teammates for accidental injuries.
The Jacksons sued the school district after Laura’s injury, but due to a confidentiality agreement, they will not disclose the exact terms of the settlement. But Daryl Jackson says the amount of money they received wouldn't even cover his daughter's medical expenses for one year.
Rebuilding a life on the sidelines
Laura is now 21, and she lives with her parents, two older sisters and her grandfather in a three-story house equipped with an elevator. She still has the long blonde hair and bubbly personality you'd expect from a former cheerleader.
At a recent physical therapy appointment, she kept her therapist laughing with her opinions on the varying levels of hotness of the guys in "Twilight" and "Glee." She attends a nearby community college studying business, but last semester, she took online courses only — it’s too tough to get her wheelchair through the Michigan snow.
Her older sisters take her out to local bars and tuck her into bed at 2 a.m. Her teeth are brushed each morning by a nurse. Her makeup is applied, her hair is washed, brushed, blow dried and flat ironed, all by a someone else. A ventilator does her breathing for her.
“I can’t move. I can’t breathe. I can’t do anything for myself,” she says.
This complete lack of independence — and privacy — is the hardest part for Laura: “I can never be alone. No private phone calls, no just sitting down and watching TV by yourself, no running around the neighborhood or anything. I’m always with, at least, one other person.”
As cheer has increasingly become a fast-paced, highly energetic sport that’s all about action, Laura has spent the years since her accident learning to live a life that’s almost entirely passive. But even from the sidelines, she still loves cheerleading.
“I still watch it on ESPN all the time — I watch all the cheer competitions. I love going to a game to watch the cheerleaders. But it’s hard not having it in my life,” Laura says. “I’m still like a cheerleader at heart — I’m still happy and I’m still hyper. It’s just always going to be a part of me.”
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