Cheerleading is starting school year as a CIF-regulated sport – OCRegister
Sweat drips on the mat. Industrial fans churn. The air inside the gym is stifling, suffocating.
Several El Dorado High teammates complain of sore ankles – sprains, twists, jams – and one checks her nose for blood after catching an elbow and crashing to the floor.
Welcome to hell week, cheerleading style.
The world of competitive high school cheer can be brutal and intense, on par with the football games where pompom-carrying squads still fulfill their traditional role.
“We work hard. It’s a team sport and you can’t let the team down,” Lexie Reynolds, 17, said during a break from Tuesday’s eight-hour practice, Aug. 22. “You still have to push through if you are sick or injured.”
But, for decades, cheer was not classified as a sport – until now.
Starting this school year, competitive cheer is a sport under the jurisdiction of the California Interscholastic Federation – better known as CIF – officially entitling cheerleaders as student-athletes – same as their football or basketball counterparts – and introducing oversight with practice limits and safety standards, and state titles.
“It’s about time,” said Grace Park, a junior and co-captain at Fullerton’s Sunny Hills High. “People think what we do is just dancing and yelling, but we bleed, we get sprains.”
But the shift has thrown the newly christened sport into flux, with programs adapting on-the-fly to still-forming rules.
When Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation turning cheer into a sport in 2015, CIF brass was given 18 months to develop guidelines, procedures and safety standards ahead of the 2017-18 school year.
“The CIF got bamboozled,” said Cheryl Vuong, the longtime cheer coach at Los Alamitos High. “The state made it a law, and CIF is doing this the best they can. … This is a super complicated nut to crack.”
Without the usual leagues and divisions in place yet to create a level playing field among teams of different caliber, some Orange County coaches worry how ready the state system is for change. But, CIF officials assure schools they are.
Some coaches argued restrictions on when students can cheer – no more than 18 hours a week, according to bylaws that went into effect July 31 – will limit squads’ exposure to competitions and may stunt their athletic development.
And the rules may prove burdensome to the most elite teams. After this maiden cheer campaign, for example, squads must observe Sunday as a day of rest.
El Dorado has won five national cheer championships by competing on Sunday, and the Los Alamitos Griffins are regular competitors at the National High School Cheerleading Championship televised on ESPN each March.
“I have a countdown on my calendar ‘til nationals,” Vuong said. “You take that away from these girls, and I don’t know what they can push for.”
CIF isn’t regulating the sideline cheering at football games or pep rallies, rather it will oversee tournaments of two-and-a-half-minute routines scored by judges and weighed against a field of other teams; and head-to-head competition in which opposing teams perform seven routines over four quarters and are awarded points per a universal score sheet – which hasn’t been developed yet.
For these competitions, the cheerleaders – male and female – learn dance and gymnastics, strengthening their bodies to support teammates’ weight in pyramids and launch others in high-flying stunts.
“I know for the girls it’s nice to be recognized,” said Amy McKeever, once a cheerleader at La Habra High and now a cheer coach at Sunny Hills High. “They put in the same amount of hours, if not more, than other athletes.”
Equal recognition between traditional sports and cheerleading – along with uniform safety precautions– was, it seems, the point of the law.
When Gov. Brown signed Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher’s bill into law, she said he had “ensured these athletes will earn the respect and have the safety standards they deserve.”
Cheer will be considered a year-round sport, stripping it of an offseason – and, possibly for some, campus benefits.
At El Dorado High, for example, gym time is allotted to teams based on whether they are in-season.
Cheer is often at the bottom of the list, said Katie Bowers, the varsity cheer coach.
Until Friday, her team is renting out Pacific Coach Magic, an Anaheim cheer facility, for its hell week – for $75 an hour. But for the week, she doesn’t have to jostle with other coaches for floor time.
Bowers is demanding of her team: She requires the squad run a mile before each practice, she peppers in conditioning and strength training throughout and – in the vein of her football coach husband – often unleashes a barrage of barbs at her players to build their mental strength.
But because of the practice rules, she has to limit the team’s prep time or try to skirt the rules – by, say, blurring the line between competition and sideline practice sessions. She also had to cut El Dorado’s schedule from 10 events to five because of the day-of-rest rule.
About 120 California schools have registered their competitive cheer teams for the 2017-18 season, CIF officials said. There aren’t enough yet to form all of the regional pools the bigger sports play under, but squads will compete for state titles.
The formation of leagues, divisions and championships will depend on annual registration numbers, Rob Wigod, CIF commissioner of athletics, said, and other questions will be answered in the coming years.
“This first year,” he said, “we’re getting our bylaws implemented. In the next few years, we’ll begin to evolve into holding championship competitions.”
El Dorado’s first cheer competition of 2017-18 is scheduled for Nov. 12, a qualifying event for the national competition future squads may miss out on.
“Some schools only do sideline cheering, but we’re all about competition,” said Megan Brown, 17, a senior at the Placentia school.
On campus, she said, the cheer squad is as respected as the boys in their letterman jackets. “Every year, the freshmen know who we are more than other teams. They can probably hear us yelling all the way across the school.”
Bowers, who searched for ways to still compete outside of CIF, said she sees not one positive from the state recognizing cheer as a sport – saying, “that’s why I’ve been so outspoken against it.”
But Wigod, the CIF athletics commissioner, stressed coaches and players should be patient as the kinks are worked out.
“We all share the same commitment to helping young people learn through high school athletics,” he said. “This is a real positive thing.”
“The real competition isn’t with other schools as much as it is with yourself and your team doing the best it can,” he said. “Those same lessons, whether learning them in cheer, show choir or basketball, all emphasize doing the very best you can.”