published Sunday, January 20th, 2013

Cook: We've got spirit!

Not a sport? Not a sport?!?

What else do you call it when a girl barely taller than your mailbox goes flying through the air and into the next stratosphere, where she twists and turns like an aerodynamic ballerina, never breaking a sweat or crinkling her mega-watt smile, and then falls back to Earth, ponytail scorching, into the arms of other girls who catch her as easily as a cold and without one pinkie toe out of place in their dance routine, so cool it would raise Michael Jackson from the dead?

Two, four, six, eight!

Let's stunt her

into outer space!

But cheerleading's not a sport?

"I hear it all the time," said Lauren Hood.

Hood, 16, is a competitive cheerleader. And on the wrong end of comments from friends and foes who cling to the outdated notion (the Earth is flat, frogs cause warts) that cheerleading is not a sport.

"It's one of the hardest sports there is," said her mom, Lynda Minks Hood.

This weekend, thousands of cheerleaders are sis-boom-bah-ing their way into the Chattanooga Convention Center for one of the toughest competitions around: the Athletic Championships.

For two days and nights, the cheer-athletes will sweat through two-and-a-half-minute routines, so wicked the witch from the West melts. Teams perform routines that include stunts (the flights through the air that make Mom and Dad wince), dances, jumps and pyramids.

It's Gabby Douglas-meets-Beyonce-meets-John Glenn. Judges? Yep. Scoring? Yep. Teamwork, agility, possibility an ambulance could be called? Yep, yep, yep.

But not a sport?

The notion comes from the old-fashioned cheerleader-as-sideline-object. Pom-poms, a few leg kicks. Only there to complement the boys. Kind of like 1950s secretaries. And swimsuit issues.

What's that spell?

Sexism!

This weekend, around the same time the cheer-letes are building pyramids that make Egyptians blush, golfers are hiking up their pants as they approach tee boxes all around the area.

Stan the Cart Rider will shank three balls, drink four beers and lose six bucks, all by the ninth hole, and no one will question whether golf (gasp!) is a sport.

Hey hey, ho ho!

Can you even

Touch your toes?

Don't even bring up bowling.

Give me an E!

Give me a Z!

(Or, as they say in bowling alleys across America: Give me a beer!)

"The first thing I would ask them to do is come in and watch one day of practice," said Andy Quattrochi, gym manager at RAH! Spirit, one of the most popular cheering gyms in the region. "After one day of being in the gym, they will think different."

They practice before school. After school. Nights, weekends, mornings, evenings. Leap years (get it?). Endure black eyes, broken bones, twisted ankles, swollen knees, concussions.

"We see 600 or 700 [athletes] a week," said Quattrochi, who coaches individuals, area school teams and all-star squads. As young as 3 and as old as 19. Girls and boys.

The gym? Blood, sweat and cheers. Championship banners hang from rafters. Trophies on shelves. A no-whining sign over the water fountain. Everywhere, someone either flipping or stretching.

"An athlete could possibly do 10 to 15 different flips in one 21/2-minute routine. They're lifting up another athlete or being thrown 30 feet in the air. It's not just shaking your hips and pom-poms around," he said.

"We have 30-foot ceilings. If we put the right group in here, we could hit this ceiling."

Try that, John Madden. Or Bill Dance.

Sure, there are about 26,000 cheerleading injuries a year, according to USA Today, and last fall a national group of pediatricians begged for more safety regulations. One way to do it?

Officially declare it a sport.

"If I was exhausted, I still wanted to go to practice. To get better and better. People wouldn't skip practice," said Hood. "You'd be there for your team and not let them down."

The 21st-century version of cheerleading is empowering and staggeringly athletic. Like any sport, it has its downsides, but at its core, it contains a transformative power.

"I see a change in myself. More outgoing and confident. Excited about something," Hood continued.

Spoken like a true athlete.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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