CHEER!: Inside the Secret World of College Cheerleaders

Think cheerleading is just pom-poms, “gimme an ‘R’,” and pleated skirts? Not so much. This book is an exhilarating trip through the rough-and-tumble world of competitive college cheerleading. Because 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.

CHEER! has been called “the Friday Night Lights of a new generation.” Read much more about the book here.

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Praise for CHEER!: Inside the Secret World Of College Cheerleaders

“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

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

“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

“This book manages to be that unique hybrid of narrative non-fiction that reads like fiction. The characters and story lines are so engaging that we give you this warning: It will be your next page turner.”
Daily Cents

Read much more about CHEER! here.

A Brief History of Cheerleading

Most people simply aren’t aware of the fact that cheerleaders were originally men. Cheerleading goes back to the very first college football game, between Princeton and Rutgers. Princeton students started chanting, “Rah rah rah! Tiger tiger tiger! Sis sis sis! Boom boom boom! Ahhhhh!” It became a tradition, and soon the school appointed “yell leaders” who sat in the audience and lead said chants. The idea spread across the country, and in 1898 a University of Minnesota yell leader ran in front of the crowd to lead his chants. Cheerleading was born.

For the next 40 years, male cheerleaders (usually elected by their student body) stood faithfully on the sidelines. It wasn’t until the World War II era, when women started filling the male void in factories and colleges, that female cheerleaders became the norm.

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Famous Cheerleaders, from the Duhs to the Unexpecteds

Famous Cheerleaders

A friend sent me this slideshow of famous folks who were once cheerleaders. There were a few on here I had no idea about. But since they also missed a few good ones, here is a comprehensive list of former cheerleaders who now run (or at least entertain) the world.

The Presidents: George W. Bush (Andover, Yale), George Bush Sr. (Yale), Ronald Reagan (Eureka College), Dwight Eisenhower (West Point), Franklin D. Roosevelt (Harvard)

The Celebs You Could Have Guessed: Katie Couric (University of Virginia), Madonna (University of Michigan), Paula Abdul (Los Angeles Lakers), Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Simpson, Calista Flockhart, Ann Margret, Jamie Lee Curtis, Halle Berry (Bedford High), Sandra Bullock (Washington Lee High), Mandy Moore, Cameron Diaz (Long Beach Polytechnic), Meryl Streep (Bernard High), Natalie Maines, Alicia Silverstone, Sally Field, Reba McEntire, Kelly Ripa

The Ones Who’ll Surprise You: Samuel L. Jackson (Morehouse College), Ruth Bader Ginsberg (James Madison High), Michael Douglas, Gloria Steinem, Steve Martin, Aaron Spelling (Southern Methodist University)

Read much more about CHEER! here.

The Dangers of Cheerleading

Kristi Yamaoka

Happy first day of the NCAA, everyone! My bracket is filled out and ready to go. Anyone want to start a pool? Don’t worry. I’ll lose. I always do, because I go for wishful thinking rather than pragmatism in choosing my winners. In other words, I’ve picked the same team to win every year since I was a little kid.

But let’s shift focus a little—this is a blog about cheerleading after all. Several years ago, in the week before the NCAA tournament, a Southern Illinois cheerleader named Kristi Yamaoka fell off the top of a human pyramid. The basketball game was put on hold for several minutes while medics ran to the court floor, wrapped her in a full-body brace, and lifted her onto a stretcher. As they wheeled her off the court floor, the band began to play the school’s fight song. Kristi’s arm shot up, her fingers wiggling—she performed her school’s fight song while being rolled toward an ambulance. This image was replayed on the nightly news for weeks and it got many people thinking, “Is cheerleading dangerous?”

The answer is complicated—risk is absolutely a part of competitive cheerleading, and many top cheerleaders say the adrenaline rush is part of why they love the sport. But at the same time, I think there’s a definite gender bias going on in the reporting of cheerleading injuries.

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Woman Commits Identity Theft to be a Cheerleader

Wendy Brown, a 33-year-old woman in Green Bay, Wisconsin, used her 15-year-old daughter’s ID to enroll in high school. Now why, oh why, would any adult want to go back to to high school? Because Wendy desperately wanted to be a cheerleader.

Before school started, Wendy tried out for the squad, bought her uniform (with a check that bounced, naturally), attended multiple cheerleading practices, and attended a pool party at the coach’s house. However, during the first week of school, she only went to class for a single day, leading school officials to investigate her more closely. They soon discovered that Brown’s daughter actually lived in Nevada with her grandmother, her legal guardian, and was happily attending high school there.

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Who are Male Cheerleaders?

Male CheerleaderWhen I first had the idea to follow three college cheerleading squads for a year and write a book about it, I bought into that stereotype that most male cheerleaders would be gay. I was absolutely wrong. While doing my research, I was stunned to find out that male cheerleaders were actually the opposite of what I was picturing in my head. Below, who guy cheerleaders really are:

1. They’re jocks. Most guy cheerleaders started out as football, baseball, or basketball players. Some of them had an injury that took them out of their original sport—others didn’t get college sports scholarship they were looking for and decided to change focus. There’s one guy in my book who played both football and rugby before becoming a cheerleader. “Cheer is by far the hardest sport I have ever been a part of,” he said.

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The Infamous Cheerleading Beat-Up Video

Cheerleading Beatup Video

You knew that, eventually, I was going to write about this infamous YouTube video. By now, you’ve probably heard the story. Several years back, eight Florida high-schoolers—several of them members of their schools’ cheerleading squad—lured a friend (also a cheerleader) over to a house and then proceeded to pummel her for half an hour. The friends were evidently pissed about comments the girl had made on her MySpace page, and orchestrated this beat-down to be filmed and posted on YouTube.

Do I think the making of this video had anything to do with the fact that some people involved were cheerleaders? Not at all. But I do think the fact that they were cheerleaders ensured that the story would blow up. Here are a few sample headlines:

Cheerleader, Others Beat Up Teen Girl, Tape the Crime

Cheerleaders Pummel Girl for 30 Minutes in ‘Animalistic’ Ambush

Cheerleader beaten on YouTube Opens Up About the Ordeal

Notice the first word in each of these?

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The Cheerleading Nationals Look

Cheer MakeupEven though I’ve been to Nationals several years running, I’m still blown away by the meticulous attention to detail female cheerleaders put into their hair and makeup.

The average female cheerleader spends 2-3 hours perfecting these things, which is a lot considering that the judges mark scores from more than 100 feet away. Teams tend to have a specific look—on some teams, all the women will have curls, others will all do low ponytails, and I even saw one team here last year who had matching cornrows.

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Meet the Three Teams I Followed in CHEER!

Without further ado, here they are:

SFAThe Stephen F. Austin State University Lumberjacks are the best of the best, the Yale of college cheerleading. Located in Nacogdoches, Texas, SFA attracts the top college cheerleaders from across the country. Their tumbling is phenomenal, their basket tosses are textbook, and their pyramids are the biggest and most complicated out there. The Lumberjacks have eight national titles under their belt—in fact, they’ve won the past four years running. CHEER! chronicles their quest for their fifth National Championship in a row.

UofMThe University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers are a new team—created just four years ago, they brought home the National Championship trophy their first time appearing at UCA Nationals. They have since established themselves as one of the best All-Girl teams in the country. They are one of the teams nudging the bar for All-Girl cheerleading higher and higher. Still, some of the Memphis women feel like the forgotten step-children to the school’s Coed team. CHEER! chronicles the team’s quest for another trophy—and respect.

SUThe Southern University Jaguars are like both teams in Bring It On rolled into one. A historically black college squad, they are known equally for their great stunting and their hip-shaking choreography. The Jaguars have never won a National Championship, but in 2002 they came within two-tenths of a point of being the first black squad to win at NCA Nationals. Sadly, the team has not been able to travel back to Nationals since. CHEER! follows the team as they struggle to get back to NCA Nationals.

Read much more about CHEER! here.