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Cheering tops list of most dangerous sports

Activity outpaces basketball in serious injuries by 16 to 1

Posted: October 25, 2008 9:57 p.m.
Updated: December 27, 2008 5:00 a.m.

A Hart cheerleader tumbles as the varisty team runs past her.

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Concussions, fractured arms, shoulder injuries, sprained ankles and broken noses?

Bring it on.

Today's cheerleaders do more than just stand on the sidelines at a football game and lead the crowd in cheers for the team - although that's a big part of their role. They're also highly skilled athletes that train hard and travel to competitions of their own.

"I think they're starting to get more respect, but I don't think people understand what cheerleaders go through every day to perform those complicated stunts that they do," said Hart High School Cheer Coach Amanda Sabo. "They're real athletes - they take their hits just like the football players."

Cheerleading has changed over the years and now requires acrobatic skills and endurance training. As the gymnastic-type stunts increase in difficulty, cheerleading injuries also increase, making cheer now the most dangerous sport for girls, according to a report by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injuries.

Actually, no other sport comes close when it comes to serious injuries. Between 1982 and last year, 67 serious cheerleading injuries were reported, including two fatalities, compared to just four serious basketball injuries and three serious softball injuries during the same time period.

"I do worry about (getting hurt) a little bit, but it's part of doing something I love and something I get a lot of satisfaction from doing," said Hart varsity cheerleader Becca Talkin, who just returned to the squad after recovering from a broken nose. "I haven't had any other serious injuries, but I have gotten a few black eyes before."

Becca didn't turn her head enough when catching a girl who was performing a "double twist down"; she was hit in the face.

"Yeah, it hurt a lot. I don't remember the pain as much as I remember thinking ‘Oh my god, I think I just broke my nose,'" Becca said.

According to the report, serious injuries can be prevented if cheerleaders receive proper training from a qualified coach. Sabo, who also helps coach the California Flyers cheer squads at Gymcheer USA, attends training sessions regularly to stay on top of the latest coaching techniques and safety procedures.

"I've been to two conferences so far this year to learn to coach properly," Sabo said. "But there are coaches out there who don't take the time to get the proper training."

Even with proper training, sometimes accidents happen, Sabo said.

"There's always the occasional sprained ankle or a girl might get hit in the face. These girls put their bodies through a lot," Sabo said. "But most coaches really focus on the safety of the cheerleaders."

The Hart cheer squad currently has a few girls out with injuries like broken arms, shoulder and back injuries and two broken noses. Most, like Janelle Bongiovanni, who has a left shoulder rotator cuff injury, are getting physical therapy.

"The physical therapist said that if (Janelle) continues on this path, the injury could get worse," said Gina Bongiovanni, Janelle's mom. "Janelle teared up when she heard that. She said, ‘Mom, that's not gonna happen. I'm a cheerleader and I'm gonna compete.'"

So before every game, a sports doctor wraps Janelle's shoulder and her wrist to provide support, Bongiovanni said.

"So when she does her back handspring, she's in severe pain, but she does it anyway," Bongiovanni said. "Then after the game we ice her down and if she's in a lot of pain I give her a couple of Advil."

That kind of dedication is what made the Hart cheer squad last year's national champions.

"They had six competitions last year and they placed first in all six of them, so all of their hard work pays off," Bongiovanni said. "These girls truly are athletes. They work really hard and they are tenacious about what they do and they keep a smile on their face even if they have a broken nose."

Despite the cheer squad's numerous awards, some Hart cheerleaders still don't feel like they get the respect they deserve as athletes.

"A lot of people only see us at football and basketball games, and not at competitions, so they don't realize all that we can do," said Hart cheer captain Stephanie Harris. "So we just don't get the recognition that other sports get."

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