The spirit squad practices a tough stunt. / Photo by Jessica May
In between bites of an overpriced hot dog and sips of a jumbo cola at the Utah State University basketball games, one hardly gives a second thought to the athletes occupying the sidelines . . . the women in blue and white skirts and the men sporting the megaphones.
It should be pretty easy to cheer, right? It's just having free front-row tickets to all the games and yelling encouraging words at the basketball team, right?
Truth is, cheerleading is much harder than it seems.
While many may think of cheerleaders as blond, ditsy girls wearing really short skirts, Ben Oyler, assistant spirit squad coach at USU, says otherwise: "Stereotypes can die hard once you get to know us." And getting to know them, I found that he might be right.
On a team consisting of eight male/female couples, teamwork, time commitment and talent are factors that play into whether or not the squad will be successful at supporting the sports teams and the community, as well as putting on a pleasing performance. Oyler, spoke of the time committment, as well as the physical and academic requirements that are necessary for each team member.
"If you didn't have teamwork in a partnership, you wouldn't get anywhere," says Oyler.
In order to perform dances and routines and build stunts and pyramids, each person has to fully commit to the task at hand. Timing, rhythm and attitude are key elements in the mastery of tumbling and stunting skills. The combined effort of each team member tackling these elements ensures that a team will excel.
Chaney Packer, the team captain, speaks of another helpful aid as far as teamwork goes: "We're all such great friends."
Having been on the squad for four years, Packer expressed her amazement that everyone on this particular team gets along so well.
"This is the first year I have experienced that unity, and it's great," stated Packer.
The team meets Monday through Friday to practice stunts, cheers and dance routines, in addition to all the sporting events that they attend. That accounts for about 16 hours of each week. But it doesn't end there. The team also volunteers for community events and children's programs. And while they put in 18 to 20 hours of cheerleading every week, the team members are still expected to perform academically.
A full school schedule can be overwhelming to the average student who has no outside obligations; however, this team is able to take on the additional responsibilities and still do well in their studies. Many of the athletes work at outside jobs as well.
Linda Zimmerman, head coach of the Utah State Spirit Squad, has been involved in the program for about 18 years and sees a definite improvement taking place. This generation of cheerleaders is repeatedly executing stunts and tumbling passes that were only hoped for 16 years ago.
The requirements for tryout have increased in difficulty as well. All men showing up for tryouts are expected to have the strength and skills required to do a "throw stand."
This is the stunt seen most frequently from each couple -- where the man holds on to the woman's waist and propels her up into the air high enough to catch her feet at the level of his shoulders. Years ago, few members of the team could perform this stunt consistently. Now, each couple performs it regularly, without much thought or added effort. Although there is no weight requirement, all men and women on the team are expected to be healthy and physically fit.
While many schools compete at the collegiate level, the Utah State spirit squad chooses not to.
"It's a time issue. It's a money issue," says Oyler, the two-year assistant coach.
Team captain Chaney Packer. / Photo by Jessica May