While many who simply see cheerleaders as students chanting and clapping on the sidelines of other sporting events may never think twice about it, those girls - and some boys - have just about all suffered significant injuries for the sake of the sport they love.
About 10 years ago studies were circulating that suggested when it came to catastrophic injuries - typically head and neck injuries that can cause paralysis, brain damage or even death - cheerleading was actually more dangerous than basketball, soccer or even football.
Such claims may have been exaggerating the point, even at the time, and cheerleading - like most other sports - has become much safer since then with regulations and guidelines put in place over the past decade. Yet as anyone who participates in the sport can attest, injuries come with the territory.
“It’s inevitable for [cheerleaders] to say that they [have] gotten hurt before, because it’s a sport where you’re throwing people up into the air, you’re doing flips and you’re bound to get hurt at some point,” said Plainville High School cheerleader Olivia Haddad, who had to use crutches in the past due to the repetitive stress on her ankles from tumbling routines.
The Blue Devils are the reigning CIAC state champion in the co-ed division for cheerleading, as well as the 2019 and 2018 CCC Grand Champions for the conference competition. Bristol Central, Bristol Eastern, Southington and Newington all also have teams that competed in the CCC competition, while Bristol Central, St. Paul, Southington and Newington also competed in the state meet.
“When we’re lifting people in the air all the time, there’s always that freak incident when somebody’s not 100% on their game and lets a flyer hit the mat, or they collide heads,” Plainville coach Amber Fitzpatrick said.
Brooke Hammond, now a sophomore at Central Connecticut State University, fractured her ankle during her senior year of high school and missed participating in the sport during all of her freshman year of college after having surgery on that ankle.
She said she suffered the injury while tumbling – a skill she had done dozens of times before - and “just that one time I didn’t have my hand in the right spot, or my foot slipped, and I fractured my ankle. You never think that’s going to happen to you, and then it happened.”
Jess Boutin, another CCSU sophomore cheerleader, said she has hurt both of her wrists and fractured her left thumb from tumbling routines.
“You try not to think about [the danger], because if you think about it, you’ll stop yourself from doing something,” she said.
Boutin admitted that when trying new skills, “It’s terrifying, obviously. But after you do it a couple times you get more comfortable and you trust the people under you.”
When she first got to college and was faced with getting thrown in the air and doing flips, “That was terrifying my freshman year. It was the hardest thing to overcome in my head,” she said. “Once you do it the first couple times, it’s not as scary as you first thought.”
Hammond said, “I don’t go into practice thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, like, what if I get hurt?’ I just go in, do what I need to do, and hope nothing like that does happen.”
Helping to take the fear and danger out of cheerleading are regulations that limit how much can be done at each level, from youth through high school and college. Simply put, the more complicated and dangerous moves are reserved for higher levels, with more experienced cheerleaders who are ready for the challenge. There are also limitations regarding what moves can be done on mats or grass - such as football fields - and what is allowed on hard surfaces such as basketball courts.
For instance, according a study obtained from the National Center for Catastrophic Injury Research, after a rule banning basket tosses (stunts using three or more people on the ground to toss another into the air to do an airborne stunt) on hard surfaces was enacted 2006-07, the injury rate associated with basket tosses decreased from 1.55 to 0.40 per 1,000,000 cheerleaders among both high school and collegiate participants after the rule change - for a decrease of nearly 75%.
According to the study called “Catastrophic high school and collegiate cheerleading injuries in the United States: an examination of the 2006-2007 basket toss rule change,” during the 36-year period from 1982-83 to 2017-18, NCCSIR recorded 73 catastrophic traumatic injuries among high school cheerleaders and 33 among collegiate level cheerleaders, with the number of catastrophic injuries in high school cheerleading declining over the past 20 years from 43 during 1998-99 to 2007-08 to 10 during 2008-09 to 2017-18, or an average of 4.3 catastrophic injuries per year to 1 catastrophic injury per year.
Also from an NCCSIR report covering the years 1982-83 to 2017-18, football had the highest number of direct traumatic injuries (971), followed by female cheerleading (71), wrestling (67), baseball (66) and male track and field (54). Accounting for the number of participants in the sport, male and female cheerleading, male gymnastics, football and male ice hockey had the highest rates per 100,000 participants. For college sports, football had the highest number of direct traumatic injuries (210), followed by female cheerleading (28), baseball (20), and male track and field (14). Accounting for the number of participants in the sport, male gymnastics, female skiing, football, male ice hockey, male skiing, equestrian and female gymnastics had the highest rates per 100,000 participants.
CCSU cheerleading coach Brian Moore said sometimes the cheerleaders joke among themselves about doing “stupid human tricks,” but many people are not aware of the amount of body strength and control that is needed to perform such routines.
“As we get to our level at college, you’re looking at cheerleaders that have been doing it for a long time that should have the strength and the control to do these skills,” he said. “[Younger participants] can’t be doing some of the hard stuff, simply because they’re just physically not capable of doing it. It’s when they try those harder skills. That’s when you’ll see a lot more of the injuries.”
While Moore said he’s seen some serious injuries during his time at CCSU, such incidents have become much less common and often less severe.
“A lot of that is due to better training for coaches and just awareness of drills and the steps to take to progress the skills of the cheerleaders, and that’s the biggest thing,” he said.
Fitzpatrick noted at the high school level, all coaches need to be CIAC certified and have to go through concussion training.
She added the team attends the Universal Cheerleaders Association camp every summer at Springfield University.
“The team learns a whole bunch of new skills. They learn how to properly do them,” Fitzpatrick said, adding she learns at the same time.
“Safety’s always in the back in my mind,” she said, noting the training helps.
“Especially concussions, they’re so much more aware of how serious it can be, that they [make sure] the proper people are training,” she said.
Yet, just as with any sport, injuries remain inevitable.
Plainville High’s Heather Arduini noted, “I feel like everyone kind of [suffers injuries], at least minor ones.”
She has had a concussion and been on crutches due to ankle issues, including hurting her foot back in December.
“You just kind of deal with the pain,” Arduini said.
Angel Wren, a senior boy with the co-ed Blue Devils team that took up the sport when he entered high school three years ago, said he has already suffered a couple concussions, sprained ankles and wrists, bashed his knee up a couple of times “pretty good” and continues to endure shoulder injuries that need to be taped up constantly.
Despite all that, he loves the sport he admitted he first tried out for as kind of a joke.
“You don’t see a lot of guy cheerleaders, so it’s cool to be like one of those select few that do it,” Wren said.
In addition to the injuries, the other thing the cheerleaders have in common is a love for the sport.
“I just like the competition of it, and just every year you notice yourself improving,” Boutin said.
“I just love it,” added Hammond, who started with cheerleading when she was in third grade.
“It just grew on me, and I can’t stop,” she said.
Hammond added missing time due to her injury was the hardest part.
“It was a really long and hard process,” she said. “And it was hard to go sit in practice and watch, because that’s what I wanted to be doing. But it was also great motivation to get recovered and get back to what I was doing.”
Haddad said she recently hurt her knee while learning a new skill.
“It’s always in the back of my mind that it’s just going to happen again and again, but you’ve just got to push through that and know that you can do the skill and put everything that you have into it,” she said.
“It takes a toll on your body a lot, but for those two minutes and 30 seconds that you compete on the mat, the adrenaline and just knowing that you hit this really hard routine is like the best feeling in the world,” Haddad said.
Despite the risks, “It’s definitely worth it,” Hammond said.
“Once you fall in love with something, it’s hard to separate yourself from it. So even if you do get hurt, you always want to go back,” she said.
Paul Angilly can be reached at 860-973-1800, or firstname.lastname@example.org