(SAHER JAFRI / THE STATESMAN)
Cheerleading demands the mental fortitude and physicality of major sports stars. (SAHER JAFRI / THE STATESMAN)

What if I told you that attending a Stony Brook basketball or football game gives you the chance to watch two sports for the price of one? Although many would write off the cheerleaders that perform throughout these contests year round as extraneous or novelty, they are athletes just the same.

“I don’t think people realize how hard it is,” president of the cheer team, Kristin McGinn, said. “You have to have good technique, you have to have body strength, you have to always be concentrating, you have to know how to tumble, there’s just so many things that go into it.”

On Friday, Sept. 5, the Stony Brook Cheerleading Team held its fall tryouts, with open slots for the game day and Nationals squads. However, those who did not crack either would still be guaranteed a spot with the club. To truly grasp what it takes to be a cheerleader, I decided to attend these tryouts in hopes of garnering an appreciation towards an often overlooked sport.

I ended up with such, as well as a couple of sore hamstrings and a never ending feeling of emasculation. Needless to say, I am no specimen of athletic ability. Clocking in at six-foot-nothing in sneakers and weighing about 140 pounds, some say when I turn sideways I become impossible to see.

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Before the tryout began, I spoke to a couple of prospective cheerleaders who were gunning for a spot alongside me.

“I have injuries that I sustained from the last time that I cheered that I’m going to have for the rest of my life,” junior Corinne Natal said. “Not having cartilage in my knee, things like that. It’s serious business.”

“I’ve cheered for the past five years,” sophomore Angelica Alonso said. “I cheered at my high school and I also did an all-star team which is travel, more intense stuff.”

Years of experience? Knee cartilage gone? Not a drop of sweat and I was already questioning my decision.

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We began with a few laps around Pritchard Gymnasium to get the blood flowing. The group of myself, one fellow male and approximately 11 women took to the mat for stretches, or what I believed to be intermediate level yoga. When my body was actually able to contort in the manner asked, it felt as if acid was being poured on my muscles. One of the final stretches was a full split.

“Nope,” I muttered.

Following the stretches, coach Amanda Thompson had one of the team’s current members teach us a couple of cheering routines.

As a male, I was restricted to having to memorize just four moves. This was a blessing in disguise, as the women had to pick up patterns with dozens of steps and then recite them to perfection half an hour later. This was beyond my mental capacity.

“I do expect them to pick things up quickly,” Thompson said. “You have to make sure that you know the material for game day. That could be 15 sidelines, five dances.”

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We were then given twenty minutes to warm-up our tumbling, which is performing stunts without a trampoline or other people, only by running and jumping off the ground. Some leaped and did multiple consecutive flips. I had one of the current team members teach me how to do a basic cartwheel. After learning the proper form and giving it a few tries, I was convinced that anybody watching was holding back laughter and that I would never feel my hamstrings again.

“It’s hard on your body,” Thompson said. “You have to make sure that you’re conditioned, you have to make sure that you’re warming up correctly. People have to make sure that they’re eating correctly.”

After the warm-up came the actual tryouts. Everything prior was but a precursor, yet at this point I was ready to cease this practice in futility.

We had to display our best tumbling maneuvers and our memorization of the routines for Thompson to judge. I showed off my amateur cartwheel, somehow earning coach’s approval. The final leg of tryouts was mingling with the current team members and performing stunts with them. I sat out the stunts, instead opting to observe others. Watching the team practice these stunts forced me to react in ways I would to a ferocious slam dunk or ludicrous touchdown catch. When a slip-up occurred, avoiding major injury hinged on a few teammates reacting in time to catch the falling cheerleader. The group would then laugh it off and try again, despite the clear and present danger.

“At times I think it’s probably more dangerous than football,” Thompson said. “You don’t have the padding. You’re flipping and if you do decide to forget what you’re doing you can fall.”

Having spent a tryout among these competitors, it would be foolish to think of cheerleading as anything other than a sport. The athleticism required, from brute strength to flexibility and agility, is a combination star running backs require. The amount of routines to memorize and the pressure to execute isn’t far off from a point guard. As I was preparing to leave, I noted to one cheerleader that some of the things I witnessed throughout the evening should not be humanly possible.

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“We’re not human,” she responded. “We’re cheerleaders.”

David Vertsberger

David also writes for ESPN's Truehoop Network and Hardwood Paroxysm.

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3 comments

  1. I liked the article! But I wanted to respond so one thing, the ” be guaranteed a spot with the club. ” as I foudn that not to be true. I was a member of the cheerleading club and I did not try out for any “game day team” so there is no bad blood over that.

    They, the eboard of the Cheerleading Club, only allowed me to go to two events, which I went to. Then I was kicked out of the club because I didn’t go to enough events, conviently after I had given the cheerleading club money for things I never received nor did I get my money back. I was told by an eboard memebr that I wasnt the only one kicked out either. Any club including the Cheerleading Club isn’t allowed to kick anyone out of a club because of USG and NY State funding rules and when I complained to the Univeristy, the University didnt seem to take it seriously, they stopped responding to me, and the club got an increase in funding…..

  2. Great “participant observation” report, David. We will discuss this in our SOC 390 Sociology of Sport class.

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