Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders

Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders

4.7 18
by Kate Torgovnick

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Think cheerleading is just pom-poms, "gimme an 'R,'" and pleated skirts? Not anymore. Take an exhilarating trip through the rough-and-tumble world of competitive college cheerleading....

College cheerleaders are extreme athletes who fly thirty feet in the air, build pyramids in which a single slip can send ten people crashing to the ground,…  See more details below


Think cheerleading is just pom-poms, "gimme an 'R,'" and pleated skirts? Not anymore. Take an exhilarating trip through the rough-and-tumble world of competitive college cheerleading....

College cheerleaders are extreme athletes who fly thirty feet in the air, build pyramids in which a single slip can send ten people crashing to the ground, and compete in National Championships that are won by hundredths of a point. Cheer! is a year-long odyssey into their universe, following three squads from tryouts to Nationals.

Meet the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjack cheerleaders from Nacogdoches, Texas, who seem destined to win their fifth National Championship in a row -- until they are shaken by the departure of their longtime coach. Fall in love with the Southern University Jaguars from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an African-American team hoping to raise the $17,000 needed to travel to Nationals and transform their near win several years ago into a Cinderella victory. Root for the University of Memphis All-Girl cheerleaders from Tennessee -- a team that continually struggles for the same respect Coed teams get -- when their quest for a national title is threatened by injuries and dropouts.

Along the way, meet unforgettable characters like Sierra, a cheerleading prodigy who has never lost a competition; Doug, who is in his eighth year as a college cheerleader; and Casi, one of the few female bases who can lift another cheerleader on her own. These are people who risk horrifying injuries on a daily basis, battle demons like eating disorders and steroid use, and form intense bonds.

In the immersive tradition of Friday Night Lights, Cheer! is a captivating, all-access journey into a deeply absorbing world.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Torgovnick, who skipped all of her Durham, N.C., high school's mandatory pep rallies, decided at age 25 that cheerleaders are largely misunderstood and set about to illuminate the realities of the sport. Inspired by research she first did for a Janearticle about the rise of cheerleading injuries, she set out to cover the 2006-2007 season, from the tryouts to the national championship, following three highly ranked teams: the Stephen F. Austin University Lumberjacks, in Nacogdoches, Tex.; the Southern University Jaguars, in Baton Rouge, La.; and the University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers. One commonality she finds among the majority of the young women is the myopic obsession with appearance and thinness, particularly for flyers, who are lifted and thrown. Cheerleaders, she writes, are "not a carrot-stick kind of crowd" although an entire chapter is devoted to one woman's story of how an addiction to cocaine to lose weight resulted in accolades from her coach and teammates. Torgovnick has clearly done her homework, though important characters and major narratives are lost within scores of inconsequential details. (Mar.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Cheerleading squads perform on the sidelines at games and also compete against one another at national championships. For a season, magazine writer Torgovnick followed three teams from colleges with strong cheerleading traditions ("cheer schools"): traditionally black Southern University, Stephen F. Austin State University, and the University of Memphis. In telling about the youthful, energetic, upbeat world of cheerleading, the author felicitously uses a matching writing style, full of current pop culture references, picturesque observations, and keen characterizations. Readers learn lots about cheerleading and will find whatever stereotypes they may have about cheerleaders quickly overturned. Driven and athletic, both male and female cheerleaders perform their gravity-defying stunts at great personal risk. While addressing issues like eating disorders and performance-enhancing drug use, Torgovnick definitely portrays these athletes positively, discovering a new-found respect for cheerleading, one of America's fastest-growing sports. Sparkling with energy, this book is recommended for academic libraries for popular reading, and all public libraries.
—Kathy Ruffle

From the Publisher
"Fans of Bring It On will find much to cheer about in Kate Torgovnick's meticulously reported account of the often-mocked but fascinating world of cheerleading." — Entertainment Weekly

"Torgovnick has done an excellent job of reporting, bringing the reader into this world most of us would never see." — USA Today

"A fist-pumping, Astroturf-banging tribute to the women and men who make up the in-world of competitive college cheerleading. It had me rooting from the edge of my seat for the final countdown of Nationals." — NY Post

"An engaging, voyeuristic narrative that suggests college cheerleaders are as close to real-life superheroes as exist." — Dallas Morning News

"One of the more successful pieces of narrative nonfiction this year, distinguished by Torgovnick's impeccable ear and canny, original choice of subject matter." — Kirkus Reviews (starred)

"Kate Torgovnick's Cheer! is the Friday Night Lights of a new generation. Through her painstaking research, compassionate analysis, and uncanny eye for scenes, she offers us a window into the competitive subculture of college cheerleading the way Susan Orlean did for orchid hunters and Stefan Fatsis did for Scrabble players. Torgovnick is a journalist's journalist — the kind of writer who gets the story and then has the good sense to get out of the way. We, the readers, can't help but revel in the world she's created, not only because it tells us something quintessential about America, but because it tells us something quintessential about ourselves." — Courtney E. Martin, author of Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters

"Because Kate Torgovnick has captured every voice in this fascinating world verbatim, crack open the book to read just one sentence and you too will be instantly immersed in these characters' riveting ups and downs (pun intended)." — Jane Pratt, founder of Jane and Sassy magazines

"An exuberant and empathic journey deep into one of America's least-explored and most iconic team sports — and if you've never thought of cheerleading as a sport, accompanying [Torgovnick] on this ride through the physical challenges of a competitions season will certainly change your mind. Whether you tried out for the Pom squad yourself, or blew off every high school pep rally like Torgovnick did, this suspenseful tale of cheerleading's glorious and addictive highs, and dangerous and pressure-cooked lows, will give you an insight into an ever-growing national phenomenon." — Lauren Sandler, Righteous: Dispatches from the Evangelical Youth Movement

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Chapter 1

The Yale of College Cheerleading

The Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks

Brad Patterson leans back in his chair. On the blue mat in front of him, more than 150 cheerleaders form an ocean of bodies as they practice. Brad crosses his arms over his chest, his baby face out of place on his bulky body. In his purple SFA polo shirt with sunglasses tucked into the open buttons, he appears laidback. But he's taking careful mental notes. It's the day before tryouts for the Stephen F. Austin cheerleading squad. As head coach, by the end of tomorrow, Brad will have to whittle the 150 people on the mat down to just thirty.

Stephen F. Austin State University is the Yale of college cheerleading. They've won their division, Cheer I at NCA Nationals, eight times. Just three weeks ago, they clinched a fourth set of championship rings in a row. In fact, the squad has won every year since it's been under Brad's direction.

SFA is located in Nacogdoches, Texas, a city that calls itself "The Oldest Town in Texas," although Brad tells me two other cities claim the same thing. As I made the two-hour drive from Houston, I passed logging truck after logging truck, making it obvious how the school chose the Lumberjack as their mascot. Nacogdoches is small — a main drag with the university on one side and strip malls on the other. A water tower looms above the town with the letters SFA emblazoned across it in huge purple letters.

Nacogdoches boasts only 30,000 people, but a third of them routinely show up at SFA football games. There's enough interest in cheerleading here to warrant two all-star gyms. But that shouldn't be surprising. After all, in Texas, football is often referred to as a religion, and cheerleaders are the high priests. As I watch the SFA hopefuls practice, Newton's theory of gravity seems broken — nearly every woman who goes up stays up. Still, Brad's lips are pursed. "This is one of my smaller tryouts," he says in a smooth Southern twang. "That's how it is the years we win — people get intimidated. In the years we don't win, they come crawling out of the woodwork."

Brad has recruited many of the people on the mat, scoping them out at competitions and swooping down to suggest that they try out. "At this point, I'm seriously looking at fifteen girls and twenty-five guys. But my mind can be changed during tryouts — it always is," he says.

Sierra Jenkins is no doubt one of Brad's top picks. Her über-blonde hair is piled on top of her head in a messy ponytail and a hello, my name is sticker is affixed to her black spandex shorts, dubbing her #48. She hails from Arlington, Texas, and has cheered since elementary school. In the fall, she'll be a junior, and she already wears two National Championship rings around her thin fingers. In fact, in the eight years she's competed at Nationals with school teams, she has never lost.

Sierra is used to being the best. As a college freshman, she headed to a top cheer college in Hawaii, where she established herself as a standout. But it wasn't the idyllic year of waterfall hikes and white sand beaches she'd imagined. "I was the biggest girl on the team. I thought I was fine, but my coaches were like, 'You gotta lose weight,'€…" says Sierra, a just-gargled-gravel roughness to her voice. "My first few weeks in college, all my dreams and aspirations went down the drain."

Sierra developed an eating disorder that brought her weight down to a scary ninety-five pounds. Still, she shone on the mat and was even made a captain. But midway through her sophomore year, Sierra realized she needed help. She headed home to Texas.

Back home, she enrolled in a junior college to keep in shape, and her flexibility and energy quickly made her the team's star. "I'm always trying to be like, 'Look at me. Look at me,'€…" she says. "My method is just to have more enthusiasm than everyone else. I want to see everyone's eyes going to me." Today, on the mat, Sierra does a Rewind. It's a move I first saw at last year's Nationals, when a cheerleader explained to me, "Every year, there's a move that's the move to try. This year, it's the One-Arm Rewind." The name makes complete sense once you see it — it looks like that old special effects trick where an editor plays the film backwards to make it look like someone is jumping up instead of down.

Sierra stands in front of her partner, her knees bent. His hands are placed on her lower back and she leans back on his wrists. She swings her arms and flips backwards as he grunts and pushes up, like a track and fielder throwing a shot put ball.

Sierra flexes her feet sharply in the air, uncurling her body into a straight line. There's a loud smack as her feet land in her partner's open palm. Her big, brown eyes widen as she smiles. Her brows swoop in thin arches more fitting to a silent movie star.

Along the walls of the women's basketball gymnasium where tryout practice is being held, a mural is painted of women dribbling basketballs. Bleachers run around the perimeter of the room, where a few parents sit, nervously biting their fingernails. Brad admits that parents can be uppity about tryouts. "I'll get phone calls from moms who have kids in the seventh grade. They'll ask, 'What would she need to do to make SFA?' I say, 'Call me in five years,'€…" he jokes with a dry delivery.

There is no official agenda for today's practice — the cheerleaders are free to rehearse anything they want in preparation for tomorrow. Brad has asked that the cheerleaders find someone new to try out with, rather than auditioning with a regular partner. All day, guys and girls have walked up to each other asking, "Will you stunt with me?" like they're at a middle school dance. By the end of the day, they need to map out the three stunts they'll perform at tryouts.

Most of the cheerleaders in the room are hedging the uncertainty by choosing a partner from last year's SFA team. "Returners spots are not guaranteed," says Brad. "But it's rare that I won't take someone back. I pull kids from all over the country, so if someone uprooted their life and moved here, I'm not gonna replace them with someone who's just a little bit better."

Yvette Quiñones runs up to the table where Brad sits. Her soft belly pokes forward like a little girl unaware that she's supposed to suck in. She is one of the smallest women I've ever seen — 4'11" and ninety pounds, a stature she attributes to her Mexican heritage. Her pin-straight hair falls over her rounded cheeks.

Even though she looks young, Yvette will be a senior at SFA. She's one of the few returning flyers from last year's team, and she's already agreed to stunt with four guys at tryouts tomorrow. "I better make captain for this," she jokes, as yet another guy asks to be her partner.

The men flock to Yvette because of her bubbly demeanor and because they assume her small stature will make stunting a breeze. But Yvette knows that isn't always true. "Sometimes guys overtoss me since I'm so light. They can't control it," she explains. "So if it's not working out, I'll tell them, 'I know the perfect girl for you,' and introduce them to someone else."

Yvette strolls back to the mat, and Brad's phone rings for the hundredth time today. "There's a girl on the way now who had to take the SAT this morning," he says. "According to her mom, she's God's gift to cheerleading."

Like academic scholars, cheerleaders have specialties. Men can be stunters or tumblers — a precious few do both well. Occasionally, a woman on a Coed team will be a tumbler, but more often they are flyers. Some flyers are fantastic all-around, while others concentrate on partner stunting, basket tosses, or pyramids. To decide who makes a team, coaches will often factor in what specialties they are currently lacking.

Looking around the room, I see lots of shirts for Navarro College, Trinity Valley Community College, and Kilgore College — three junior colleges located within a few hours' drive of Nacogdoches. These teams have become a minor league feeder system for the Lumberjacks; most team members come to SFA after cheering at a junior college for two years. Because cheerleaders generally start at SFA as juniors, many of them stay on extra years. It's not uncommon to talk to an SFA cheerleader who's in his or her fifth or sixth year as an undergraduate — some even enroll in grad school primarily to cheer. The scholarship means there's no financial burden to staying in school.

"It took me four years after community college because I couldn't pick a major," says Trisha O'Connor, the squad's assistant coach, a quiet woman in her twenties with long, reddish hair. She insists on calling me ma'am even though I am only two years older than her.

Trisha glances at Doug Daigle, whose shaved head and bulging muscles make him look like Mr. Clean squashed down to 5'10". This will be Doug's eighth year in college cheerleading. "I graduated in 2003 and started a career as an insurance agent," he explains. "I was making good money, but I didn't feel prepared for the real world. So I quit my job, applied to grad school at SFA, and came back. Brad was once my captain — now he's my coach."

"Doug's old as dirt," says Brad, shaking his head.

On the mat, Samantha Frazer talks to her partner from the air. Her eyes are lined in kohl, like a Texas Cleopatra, and everything about her is long, from her arms, to her legs, to her narrow face and its steep nose. "Pick it up, pick it up," Samantha commands as her arm bends. With the determination of an Olympic lifter, he powers her back in the air. "Yay," she says as she lifts her chin and smiles.

When Samantha started two years ago at a junior college, she was only a mediocre stunter. Then she saw SFA for the first time. "I was like, 'What are they on?'€…" she remembers. "They were purebred cheerleaders." Samantha was inspired to join a recreational team with some of them and worked her butt off for the next year and a half to reach their skill level.

Making the SFA squad would be a dream come true for Samantha. The same goes for her boyfriend, Hunter, a petite tumbler with light brown stubble. Both of them are trying out, and they're praying that they both make it so they can move to Nacogdoches together.

"Drop!" bellows Brad, all of a sudden.

On the mat, a girl has fallen straight to the ground, none of the guys having reached her in time to break her fall. All the men stop what they're doing and plunge to the ground for fifty push-ups while the girl slowly stands up and walks it off.

"She's picking mat out of her teeth," someone jokes.

But Brad takes this seriously — hence the push-up punishment. The number-one rule of cheerleading for men is simple: don't let your girl hit the ground.

Practice ends an hour later. The cheerleaders gather around Brad, and he briefs them on what to expect for tomorrow. "We've got good, strong guys," he says as the hopefuls head out the door. "But we need good flyers — I'm losing three of the best in the country."

Almost on cue, Sierra runs back into the gym. Brad's eyes follow her as she picks up a bag and rushes back out the door. "I like her more every day," says Brad.

"That's a Law of Gravity I Just Don't Understand."

I've never felt so tall. At 5'4", I'm used to being one of the shorter people in any given room. But as I stand at the corner of the mat surrounded by women stretching in the minutes before tryouts, I tower over them. Even the ones who appeared tall from afar, like Samantha, still only reach my nose.

Brad and his wife stroll through the gymnasium holding hands. His wife is half his size, a former college cheerleader herself, with a stylish bob and a balloon for a stomach. She's six months pregnant. Michael Preston, SFA's Director of Student Life and Brad's boss, walks behind them. "This is the worst day for me," he says. "There's all these kids and I don't know their abilities and they're trying all this stuff. I just hope they signed the waiver forms."

Brad, assistant coach Trisha, Michael, and I take seats at the judging table that faces the mat. Trisha neatly arranges stacks of information sheets and judging scorecards, all of which she's printed with matching Lumberjack logos in the corner. "Five minutes until we start," yells Brad, cupping his hands to his mouth.

The women strip off their sweatpants and T-shirts and stand in skimpy sports bras and shorts that barely cover their butt cheeks. A few of them shiver — the air-conditioning is on full blast.

"Everyone move to the right of the mat," says Brad, as all the hopefuls obey. Some of them sit calmly, while others squeeze in a last-minute stunt. Brad begins calling names, the contenders heading to the mat in groups of three in the order of the numbers scrawled on their nametags.

Samantha is one of the first to be summoned. She stands up and claps as she walks to the mat, getting out her nervous energy.

For their tryout, each cheerleader must show Brad three things — their best running tumbling pass, the tumbling they can do from standing, and, finally, the three partner stunts that best show off their skills. For her running tumbling, Samantha will attempt a Full — the Holy Grail of college cheerleading, where a cheerleader flips and twists for one full rotation in the air before landing. Samantha looks pumped as she runs, and her body whips perfectly into the air. But she stumbles to her knees as she lands. "Oh, man," she says, throwing a fist toward the ground. Brad allows everyone one do-over on each move. She runs again. Handspring, handspring, Full. She lurches forward, her knees dropping to the mat again. It's not the way you want to start a tryout, but Samantha plays it off, turning to the others and pointing her index toward the ceiling.

Samantha is focused on redeeming herself in the partner stunts. But as she and her partner attempt a Rewind, he can't catch her feet. She falls like a defective Weeble. "Ugh," groans Samantha. They move on to a new stunt, and finally they nail it. Samantha kicks her left leg up in a move called a Heel Stretch. Her eyes are focused, unwavering from a point behind me on the wall. She hops down and bows.

Samantha's last stunt has a modest name: the Awesome. Her partner tosses her, catching both of her feet in one palm. Samantha's stomach muscles quiver as she holds the position for several seconds before hopping down. Samantha takes a seat, her thin lips in a straight line. "I tried out between two other girls — I'm 100 pounds and they're like eighty-five," she says. "Plus I didn't land a single tumbling pass. There's no way I made it." She sighs deeply.

The next group called to the mat is all men. "It's a sausagefest," someone behind me yells. As the guys get into place for their partner stunts, Yvette skips onto the mat, standing in front of guy #1. He throws her in the air like a juggler tossing pins. As she does a trick, Yvette blows kisses to the judging table. She hops down and high-fives her partner.

She moves over to the next guy in line — she'll be stunting with him as well. All in all, Yvette will stunt with five different guys today, her face glowing each time she's up in the air.

We're halfway through tryouts. Everyone is amazing, but it's hard not to feel jaded watching people do the same things over and over again. And then Sierra walks onto the mat.

As she stands before us, it's striking how much darker her tanned skin is than her bleached ponytail. She runs and turns a flawless Full. For her standing tumbling, she looks straight at the judging table and shuffles backwards, bending back toward the ground and flipping over before launching into another Full.

"That's a law of gravity I just don't understand," says Brad as the rest of the cheerleaders clap. "I need more girls with Fulls."

Sierra pauses, her chest heaving as a partner steps behind her.

"Well, are you gonna go?" asks Brad.

"Not yet, my legs hurt too bad," she says.

Brad looks impatient as she takes another minute before flying into a Rewind. As she stands up in midair, she pulls her leg to the point where it appears to bend backwards. Her eyes bug out as she molds her mouth into an O. From here, Sierra does a Double Down, the hardest dismount in cheerleading, where a flyer whips her legs together from whatever position she's in and spins twice like a log rolling in water. Sierra makes it look easy. Whispers arise from around the room.

Sierra gets ready for her next stunt, a Full Up, where a flyer rotates once as her partner throws her into place over his head. As her sneakers land in her partner's hands, Sierra turns to the side and brings her right leg behind her, grabbing her foot over her head in a move called a Scorpion. Her body flattens like a pancake as she pulls her foot higher. I'm prepared for her hip to pop out of its socket at any moment. She sticks out her tongue and Doubles Down.

"That's skills," says Brad quietly as Sierra walks off the mat and sits down, an ear-to-ear grin on her face.

Tryouts are done and a different mood settles over the gym. Nervousness has been replaced by anticipation. "Everyone listen up," yells Brad. "Good job. In two hours, the list will be posted on that bulletin board over there." He points to the corner of the gym at a board with scalloped borders. "If you don't make it, there are coaches from Trinity Valley, Navarro, and Kilgore here if you would like to talk to them."

Everyone starts talking all at once. "Listen up," bellows Sierra in her Southern rasp.

"Go get some food and come back then," says Brad.

"It's Like She's in an Antigravity Room."

I feel like I'm privy to a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as I sit in a conference room with Brad, Trisha, three community college coaches, and several SFA cheer alumni who make a point of coming to practices. They act as advisors for the program, and Brad wants their opinions on who should make the squad. The twelve of us sit in cushy black executive chairs, the corporate glamour hindered only by the chalkboards and two-way mirror that takes up one whole wall. One of the alums lays his hand on the table, four fingers sparkling with championship rings. Each one has a different pattern. My favorite has an axe shape beveled on a faux ruby.

The first order of business is to look at videos. Since many cheerleaders can't make the trek to tryouts, they send in a video audition and hope Brad will be dazzled. As the group watches one sent in by a female tumbler, I hear rounds of "Wow," "That's beautiful," "She tumbles like a guy," and "Holy shit."

"It's like she's in an antigravity room," says Brad.

"Sierra is not going to like her — she's used to being the star," someone notes.

"I should also say that she's trying out at Louisville," says Brad.

"Oh, Louisville will take her," moans one of the alumni women.

If SFA is the Yale of college cheerleading, then the University of Louisville is Harvard. In the NCA's Cheer IA division, Louisville is also after their fifth straight title this year. At Nationals, there are many divisions — Cheer IA, Cheer I, Cheer II, All-Girl I, All-Girl II, Small Coed I, Small Coed II, and Junior Colleges. A National Champion will be named in each.

But even though Louisville is Cheer IA and SFA is Cheer I, the two are rivals. At NCA Nationals there is a Grand National Champion — the team that scores the highest in the competition out of all the divisions. Louisville has been the Grand National Champion four years running. SFA hasn't won since 2000. Still, as Brad told me earlier, Division 1A teams are not better by virtue. "The division you're in is based on how many people attend football games — it doesn't have anything to do with the cheerleaders," he explained. "We can beat everyone, we've done it before."

Brad's interested in two more of the video tryouts. "She's ultra-skinny, which worries me," says Brad, as a girl with limbs the size of pencils stunts on the screen. "But tiny helps, just in the way that big helps when you're playing football." He also likes a tape from a partner pair from Georgia. The rest of the tapes he disperses to the junior college coaches like trading cards.

They move on to the nitty-gritty of judging the cheerleaders from tryouts. "Right now, I'm looking at twenty girls and sixteen guys, but I can only take thirty total," says Brad, blue eyes glued to his list. "I usually take twenty-seven, but I want a few extra because I always lose a few to grades. I'm not dragging ditches again this year." Because the university has stiff academic standards, last summer Brad had several cheerleaders who made the team but did not get admitted to the school itself.

Since there are fewer guys to debate, Brad reads out the names of the definites in his mind as a junior college coach scrawls the names on a chalkboard. "You're taking him?" someone asks, as Brad names a tumbler whose GPA was so abysmal last year that he lost his scholarship and had to leave school.

"I'm willing to take a gamble on him," says Brad.

"Can you just have him take an easy schedule?" someone asks.

"If he took underwater basket weaving and sticking his finger up his butt, he still wouldn't show up for class," says Brad, shaking his head. "But he shows up to practice."

In the end, there is one extra name on the list of guys. They debate for a few minutes who to cut and in the end make a surprise decision. Brad axes a current squad member who's been slacking lately. "He'll be mad, but he didn't show up today," says Brad. "He's a no." With that, the men are settled.

The group moves on to discussing the women. Brad takes a minute to look over his list. "We've got six returners. They're all definites," he says, calling Yvette's name along with the others. "And those three from the videos are definites." All nine names are written on the chalkboard.

"I would take Sierra over anyone," says one of the junior college coaches.

"Oh, I'm taking Sierra," says Brad, agreeing. The junior college coach etches her name in bubbly letters at the top of the list.

They've barely mentioned a quarter of the women at tryouts, and already there are twelve names on the board. Brad looks at his score sheets, crossing off the absolute nos. "So there's four women left, but I only have one more spot," says Brad. He reads the four names in the running for the last spot. Samantha is one of them.

Brad rubs his eyes. "What do you think of her?" he asks, referring to a tiny blonde.

"She's got legs like a thoroughbred," snips one of the guys. No one flinches, but it's amazing to me that someone would say this in a room packed with women.

"I like Marly," says someone else. "Her tumbling is better, and she's beautiful in the air."

"I like Samantha," one of the alumni finally says.

"But she's a headcase about her Full," says Brad. "She just can't do it."

Samantha's junior college coach rushes to her defense. "She'll work on it, she'll get it," she says.

Someone at the table has a suggestion. "If you took all four of them, that would only put you at thirty-three people."

Brad shakes his head. "We have twenty-seven full scholarships, so if I take thirty and a few leave, that's perfect," says Brad. Since at Nationals, only twenty people will perform, if Brad takes too many people now, not only will he be over budget but he could also have a morale problem if a third of the squad members are alternates.

"I need to talk to Michael Preston and see if I can take more people," says Brad. Someone passes him his cell, and he dials his boss's number. "Pick up your phone," says Brad. But there's no answer.

Brad stares at the chalkboard and shakes his head. "We gotta cut some people." "Can some of these girls be alternates?" someone suggests.

"I don't like alternates," says Brad. "I want everyone to be on equal footing, I want everyone to have a scholarship." His scholarship philosophy is unusual — in most sports, coaches don't hesitate to give uneven scholarships based on talent, seniority, and NCAA allotment.

"Some will feel lucky just to make it," nudges a junior college coach. "Maybe give two people a half scholarship? Is anyone rich and won't mind?"

"None of these kids should have to pay to cheer," says Brad. "I'm at a standstill. I don't know what to do."

I glance at my watch — the list was supposed to be posted half an hour ago.

"Take more and hope a few don't show up," someone says.

"But if they all show up, I'm jacked," says Brad. "I've gotta cut someone. Samantha has to be cut."

"I don't understand. Why take those two girls from the videos over Samantha?" asks a former SFA cheerleader, her mouth agape. "Samantha can do those same stunts."

"An itty-bitty girl can just do more. Samantha's tall," says Brad. "It's physics."

"Samantha's like 5'1"," says the alumna, reading my mind. "Look, she can't be an elite stunter. Whoever gets her for a partner will pout," says Brad. "My partner in college was taller and I didn't mind, but a lot of people don't stunt well with a tall girl. I'm just not that impressed with Samantha. She's gotta be cut."

"She works hard, and she's really developing," her junior college coach protests.

Brad looks at his list. "Shit." He buries his head in his hands. "We gotta get the team posted ASAP. If I post thirty-three names, Michael Preston is gonna have a heart attack," he says. "I've gotta come up with a plan." The room goes silent, glances shooting across the table. Finally Brad picks up his phone and calls Michael Preston again. This time, he leaves a message. "Remember how I told you I'm gonna take extra cheerleaders this year so we don't have the same situation as last year? Well, I'm gonna take eight extras," he says. Everyone in the room laughs. "We'll probably lose a lot, but if not, then I know I'll have additional fund-raising to do." He hangs up the phone and wipes a bead of sweat off his brow. "Someone come write this list." "You're Exploding My Budget."

By the time the list goes up, it's an hour and a half later than Brad had promised. Some of the SFA hopefuls have waited in the bleachers with baited breath, while others have left and come back bearing McDonald's bags. Cheerleaders are not a carrot-stick-and-grilled-chicken-breast kind of crowd.

A stocky alumni cheerleader walks in, holding a sheet of paper. On it are the names of the thirty-three people who will be SFA Lumberjack cheerleaders. All eyes turn to him as he strolls with an air of circumstance. He loosens a pushpin from the bulletin board and secures the list in place.

The cheerleaders surge forward and crane their necks to get a look. Sierra's bleached ponytail is visible at the front of the pack — she quickly finds her name and walks away, a sly grin on her face. Yvette is a few steps behind her and nods as she sees her name at the top. As the others check the list, there are no big, dramatic reactions — no screams of joy or tears of sorrow. I have a feeling they could tell when they walked off the mat whether they made the team. They've had the past few hours to process their fate.

Samantha walks into the auditorium, her fingers interlocked with her boyfriend's. They edge their way to the front of the pack. Samantha uses her index finger to scan the list. At the bottom of the final column is the name she least expected to see: Samantha Frazer. She jumps up and down, clueless to the fact that a half hour of debate went into the decision to give her a chance. She grasps her boyfriend in a hug. He congratulates her, but his face remains stern. His name is not on the list — he'll have to settle for SFA's less prestigious Small Coed squad. (Many colleges have multiple squads — again, it largely depends on what the coach and school want.)

"When I saw my name, I almost had a heart attack, but at the same time, I saw that he didn't make it," says Samantha, walking away. "I'm a big ball of emotions right now."

Fifteen minutes later the new team meets in a classroom across campus. Plastic chairs have been lined up in exact rows, but as people file in, they pull them into clusters with their friends. People hug and congratulate each other. Brad walks in, folder in hand. Everyone gets quiet. "Congratulations. You just made the team that is probably the best in the country right now." "Go Jacks!" screams Yvette in a high pitch.

Brad passes around a packet to each cheerleader. "This is our contract. Our mission is to set the cheer standard for around the country and to be exemplary ambassadors for the school. You must maintain a 2.0 GPA. You must be available for events over the holidays, even winter break. You will have no spring break — that's when we'll be getting everything in line for Nationals," he says, barely looking up.

"Your scholarship will be forfeited if you break the college's drug or alcohol policies," he continues. "Do not do anything in uniform that would be deemed inappropriate — that includes drinking, smoking, and stealing from gas stations." Two guys exchange a glance and crack up. I'm guessing there's a backstory.

"Just don't do stupid stuff," he says. "I'm not your father, I can't tell you what to do, but if you get in trouble, there will be repercussions." Samantha leans back in her chair, using her knee as a desk to sign her contract. Sierra is perched on the edge of her seat. People stand up and walk toward Brad to hand him their signed contracts. Many of the women have light bruises in the shape of fingerprints on their waists.

Michael Preston walks in the room. Without saying a word, Brad follows him into the hall. All I can hear as they walk away is, "Are you crazy? You're exploding my budget." The cheerleaders don't seem to notice — they continue gabbing. Michael and Brad return a few minutes later. "From here on out, you guys are Stephen F. Austin cheerleaders," says Michael Preston. "We try to keep it fun around here — that's why we're so good. We just won four National Championships in a row. There's already pressure for the fifth. This year, I wanna score higher than Louisville. I want that Grand National Champion trophy."

"S! F! A!" chants Yvette, the new squad members following her lead. "S! F! A!"

The team forms a circle in the middle of the room, and Brad explains a team cheer. "Put your axes up," he says, sticking out his arm, his thumb holding the pinky and ring finger down. They yell together, "Ohhh .€….€….€…Jack, Jack, Jack, L-C-L-M, '07 National Champs," pounding their axes toward the ceiling.

Copyright © 2008 by Kate Torgovnick

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Meet the Author

Kate Torgovnick is a former associate writer/editor at Jane magazine. She writes about extreme athletes for The New York Times and her articles have also appeared in Newsweek, The International Herald Tribune, and The Daily News (New York). She grew up in Durham, North Carolina, and now lives in New York City.

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Cheer!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is very very great. Torgovnick has done plenty to show that cheerleading is really a sport. Many people think of it as just a stupid activity that involves short skirts and football, but it is actually very dangerous and extensive. It takes hard work and dedication. Take it from someone who knows. I would greatly reccommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hey im the real kay i mean it
Guest More than 1 year ago
Cheer! tells it like it is through Kate's fresh, youthful and vivid writing style. This is one book you won't want to put down until you've soaked in every page.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I luv snowboreding it awesome! ~ skyler
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DOES ANYONE ONE KNOW WHERE MEGHAN IS???...i need to talk to her like asap.... if you know tell her to meet me at hunger games one please and thanks you rock:)
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Whats up?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
We need our onw chat book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Shop. Hang. Go!!
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My real life gf just broke up with me
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*i walk in wearing purple skinny jeans and a green sweater* hey!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Parker stab himself
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Hey who wants to chat?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Dont like because it is very oppinated