The pressure is immense.
There is constant motion and noise during a three-minute spurt. The adrenaline surges and thoughts race. The toll is as much emotional as it is physical, and any let-up results in a letdown.
All involved must work in perfect unison — the safety of others depends on it. Broken bones, sprains, strains, tears and concussions are par for the course there, unfortunately.
Sounds a little like a mad scramble in an emergency room?
“So,” Franklin D. Roosevelt High School senior Amber Lajszky said, “don’t you dare tell me cheerleading isn’t a sport.”
It is in fact, and competitive cheerleading became recognized as such in 2014 by the New York State Board of Regents. There now exist sectional championships and an official state tournament will be held on March 4 in Syracuse.
There still are invitational tournaments scattered throughout the five-month season, which begins in November, and the teams continue to cheer at other scholastic sporting events. That, along with an exhausting practice schedule, makes for as impressive a juggling act as balancing a somersaulting flyer.
The Arlington cheerleading team spent two hours last Friday evening at Roy C. Ketcham High School performing acrobatic stunts, dancing to 1990s hip hop and entertaining a rollicking crowd as the Admirals boys basketball team rallied for a comeback win against their rivals.
Less than 12 hours later, the squad was at John Jay High School, cheering itself on this time.
The group pulled an upset of its own, wowing judges with their showmanship, charisma and dance number to take first place in the mixed varsity competition of the John Jay Cheer Invitational on Saturday. The co-ed team was led by Rachel Prandoni, Za’ire People, AJ Pittore and Will Adams.
Roosevelt has a roster full of underclassmen with Becca Gibson, Emily Nealy and Lajzsky as its only seniors. Faced with the pressure of competition, the team flipped out… no, literally. Its flashy, tumbling- and acrobatics-packed combinations earned Roosevelt first place in the “large school, small team” bracket. The performance elicited chants from the crowd, and even opposing teams.
The Presidents sang and danced to pass time after the competition, as the results were being tabulated. Then when they were announced among the winners, emotions overflowed.
“I bawled my eyes out,” Gibson said. “This is significant. All the work we put in, it’s for moments like this.”
Give ‘em a T-R-O-P-H-Y!
“This is huge for us,” Arlington coach Danielle Camporese said of the victory. “We haven’t done that well in recent years and cheerleading overall isn’t always taken seriously. This trophy is something we can take back to the school and show we can succeed like our other teams.”
In celebration of their accomplishment, Admirals cheerleaders joked, they would indulge themselves by bragging. Incessantly.
Some of the Roosevelt team members treated themselves to fast food. (Just defying stereotypes by the minute, huh?)
The competition featured 29 teams, including the Wappingers Junior High School team, competing in the modified division, the Ketcham junior varsity and Dover High School. Teams came from as far south as Westchester County, and Colonie traveled from Albany.
Some of the proceeds from the event were donated to the Lauren Gould Fund, in honor of the former North Rockland coach who died in December from complications of cystic fibrosis. Her squad was cheered loudly after taking first among large teams.
Years of petitioning by coaches to have cheerleading deemed a varsity sport grew into a groundswell about five years ago. “Cheerleading has always been athletic,” said Roosevelt’s Fran White, who has coached for 20 years. “But having it be considered a sport starts to build a respect from the people who think it’s just about shaking pom-poms.”
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association reached an agreement with the state to have the first cheerleading state tournament in 2013 — hosted by Arlington High School — and it served as a pilot of sorts. The following year, it was accepted as a scholastic sport.
“It’s always been a sport to me,” said People, a back stop for Arlington whose mom, Lynnece Edmond, coaches the Poughkeepsie High School cheer team. “I’ve had that argument with a lot of people. So much work and preparation goes into this and we’re combining gymnastics with dance, screaming at the top of our lungs. And we’re lifting people up instead of a ball.”
Arlington’s two-and-a-half-minute performance began with 50 seconds of cheer, getting the audience hyped. And, yes, “A-O-E” was bellowed. That was followed by a frenetic series of tumbles, pyramid stunts, dances and two quad-jump sequences.
“For anyone who would like to challenge us that it’s not a sport, give it a try,” said Prandoni, a base for the Arlington team. “See how it goes and give us some feedback.”
Roosevelt’s six-day practice week consists of 2½-hour sessions, during which the group works on all elements involved in its routines, from the obvious stuff like agility and choreography, to the seemingly idiosyncratic synchronization of jump timing.
Simply, some people elevate higher on jumps and take longer to land than others, Camporese explained. In order to maintain a seamless rhythm, the jumps are designed with the goal of simultaneous landing.
It’s the twirling 180-degree backflips, pyramid scorpions and corkscrew dismounts that most wow the audience, Roosevelt assistant Lexi Conte said. But in a sport that grades to the fraction of a point, minutiae matters.
Those intense practices are sandwiched around the attendance of other sporting events to cheer on schoolmates. Those games are used as additional practice and the stunts performed there, People said, are basic. And all that is squeezed between their scholastic duties. But during their actual competitions, White said, “It’s our time to shine.”
There are obvious dangers in cheerleading — performing high-risk stunts with flyers often being propelled 15 feet in the air often comes at a cost. Three Arlington cheerleaders have broken their noses this season. Lajszky said concussions and elbow sprains have plagued Roosevelt. Among her litany of injuries, Prandoni said she has sprained both ankles and wrists and suffered a concussion earlier this season.
“You have to be committed to doing this,” said Prandoni, who has been a gymnast since kindergarten and picked up cheerleading in ninth grade. “We truly love it, and that’s why we endure it. So to go through all that and get something like this and have that feeling of pride, it’s rewarding. It’s definitely worth it.”
Blood, sweat and cheers.
Stephen Haynes: email@example.com, 845-437-4826, Twitter: @StephenHaynes4