Cheerleaders face limit on stunts, dispirited by changes

By Julia Glick The Associated Press

DALLAS – Ten minutes before the big game, the beribboned Baylor University cheerleading squad tumbled, twisted and flipped in a cramped backstage practice area of the cavernous American Airlines Center.

The team scrambled to tone down its routines for the Big 12 Conference tournament this weekend after a national cheerleading safety group restricted high-flying stunts in response to a frightening fall from a 15-foot human pyramid a week earlier. The changes went into effect days before a slew of college basketball conference tournaments around the country.

“Basically, we have been practicing this whole semester for nothing. One incident has caused us to have to rework everything,” said Heather Cunningham, Baylor’s cheerleading captain. “We are going back to middle school stuff.”

The American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators banned tall pyramids and some forms of cheerleader tossing without mats after Kristi Yamaoka of Southern Illinois University lost her balance and fell on her head during the Missouri Valley Conference championship Sunday. She had a concussion and cracked vertebra in her neck but was released from a hospital Tuesday.

Jim Lord, AACCA executive director, said the new rules are an attempt to prevent another high-profile accident. Lord said the restrictions only apply to basketball games, where high-flying tricks can be dangerous because of hardwood floors and crowded sidelines.

“This isn’t a cheerleading competition. This isn’t where they get to do everything they want to do,” said Lord, whose group works to educate the more than 50,000 cheerleading coaches nationwide. “The cheerleaders aren’t there for themselves. They’re there for the game.”

While the AACCA has no enforcement power, the NCAA, NAIA and other basketball tournaments require cheerleading teams to conform to its guidelines. And squads are likely to comply, since conferences could punish them for breaking the rules.

However, Southeastern Conference associate commissioner Charles Bloom said the SEC would not implement any new rules. The conference includes the top three schools in the most recently completed national tournament: Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama.

“Standards for safety are already in place,” said Kentucky cheerleading coach Jomo Thompson. “It is up to the school and the coaches that they are followed. In the Southeastern Conference, we take the utmost pride in not getting anybody hurt.”

In the Big 12, Cunningham’s Baylor team had been nailing elaborate cheerleader tosses and tall pyramids but scrapped them, settling for smaller pyramids and routine lifts and flips.

“I think the rules are excellent,” said Tim Allen, associate commissioner for the Big 12. “There are probably plenty of things they can do to increase fan involvement and keep spirit up that don’t involve placing anyone at risk.”

Cheering has grown over the years to include male performers, highly competitive national and world championships and intensive training regimens. But cheerleading still fights the stereotype of pretty, popular girls waving pompoms on the sidelines.

“Everybody understands that in any type of sport there’s going to be risk,” North Carolina State cheerleading coach Harold Trammel. “You’ve got to find a way to be able to control the risk, and still allowed to do the things that, if you train properly, are safe.”

The changes add to an already strict set of regulations that limit the college level far more than the competitive amateur circuit, said Baylor spirit coordinator E.J. Williams.

Cheerleaders who competed nationally in their teens arrive at college and find themselves unable to use their best skills or to progress, Williams said.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Urban, who has been training at Cheer Athletics in the Dallas suburb of Garland since she was 5, said cheerleaders are no stranger to bruises, sprains and occasional breaks. A jar of free Band-Aids sits on the front desk at Cheer Athletics alongside a jar of candy-colored hair bands. Urban once broke her foot while practicing at home.

Good, certified coaches protect cheerleaders more than rules can, Urban said, adding that cheerleaders should not be allowed to try something they aren’t prepared to handle.

“I have been trained, I know what I am doing and I know I can land it,” she said. “I am working on these things, and hopefully when I am in college, I will be able to do them.”