They're cute, but cheerleaders are also tough, gutsy
Posted: Wednesday March 15, 2006 1:12PM; Updated: Wednesday March 15, 2006 1:13PM
Southern Illinois' Kristi Yamaoka continued to cheer even as she was wheeled off the court after a disastrous fall.
So it turns out that cheerleaders are more than just ponytails and pom-poms. They happen to be tougher than an overcooked steak. By now you have probably seen or heard of Kristi Yamaoka, the Southern Illinois cheerleader who suffered a concussion and a fractured vertebra when she tumbled 15 feet from the top of a pyramid and slammed into the floor at a Salukis basketball game. Yamaoka, feisty little thing that she is, moved her arms to the beat of the school fight song as she was being carried off on a stretcher, earning her a huge ovation from the crowd, an appearance on the Today show and a place in the pantheon of athletes who have sucked it up and played hurt.
We have seen some impressive displays of toughness in sports. Ronnie Lott of the 49ers once had a piece of his finger cut off during a game in order to keep playing. Kirk Gibson limped up to the plate with an injured knee and hit a game-winning homer in Game 7 of the World Series. Jack Youngblood played an entire football game with a broken leg. But they all owe Yamaoka a we-are-not-worthy salute. All of those supposed tough guys managed to perform in pain, but did any of them gut it out while maintaining a perky smile, a la Kristi? Didn't think so.
Yamaoka isn't allowed to pick up a pom-pom for six to eight weeks, but you get the feeling that if it were up to her, she'd rub a little dirt on that cracked vertebra and climb right back to the top of the pyramid. She says that she has every intention of doing the same perilous stunt again when she's healthy. That's a cheerleader for you. They make hockey players look softer than a feather bed.
They're so fearless that many of them object to the calls for greater safety measures in the wake of Yamaoka's injury. The Missouri Valley Conference, of which Southern Illinois is a member, barred some of the more dangerous stunts, like the pyramid, during the women's basketball conference tournament last week, and the league may keep the restrictions in place permanently. The NCAA is prohibiting pyramids of more than two levels and tosses without the use of a mat during the upcoming men's and women's tournaments.
To which Yamaoka and many of her twisting, tumbling, bouncing, flipping colleagues respond, What are you guys, sissies? "I don't want anyone to be restricted based on one little thing that happened to me," Yamaoka said in a press conference. Of course, the fact that the press conference took place at a hospital and that she was wearing a neck brace at the time suggests that it wasn't such a "little thing," but try telling that to a cheerleader. "Other coaches are angry, saying this is ridiculous," Southern Illinois cheerleading coach Jennifer Graeff said. "If a basketball player dunks and breaks an ankle, are they going to say you can't dunk?"
Much as we appreciate the hard-nosed attitude, this is one situation in which cheerleaders need to be protected from themselves. Some cheerleading stunts are incredibly risky, especially the ones done at basketball games, where there are no mats to land on, only the hardwood floor. Since 1998, 25 percent of all NCAA catastrophic injury claims have come from cheerleading. A San Jose State cheerleader was paralyzed in a fall in 2004. In 2001 a University of Nebraska cheerleader won a $2.1 million settlement with the school after she was paralyzed from a fall while practicing handsprings five years earlier.
The best gymnasts in the world, the Olympic-caliber performers, execute their routines on mats. It doesn't make sense for college cheerleaders to try to perform aerial acts without the same kind of cushioning. Since it's impractical for them to drag mats out onto the floor during timeouts, the only sensible solution is to limit the risky stunts. Cheerleaders can be just as enthusiastic, if not quite as entertaining, by staying a bit more earthbound.
So the hope here is that the limitations on dangerous stunts become permanent. We would never say that directly to Yamaoka or her cheerleading buddies, though. Frankly, we're a little scared of them.