Cheerleading injuries raising alarms

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Amanda Ruvio has been a cheerleader for more than three years and in that time, she has sprained her ankles, broken both wrists, her nose and a toe.

"I get hurt a lot, but that's not going to stop me from cheering," said Amanda, 17, of Patchogue, taking a break from a recent practice while nursing a sore ankle wrapped in a black brace.

"It's part of being an athlete - you are going to get hurt, but you have to keep going for your goal," said Amanda, who has cheered for the Patchogue-Medford High School squad and now competes on a private team at L.I. Cheer, a Ronkonkoma gym.

But as cheerleading attracts more students, concerns by coaches, parents and others are rising about a growing number of injuries. At the same time, a movement is afoot on Long Island and in New York State to make cheerleading an official scholastic sport, which supporters say could increase the amount of money available for proper training and give cheerleaders the respect they deserve.

And next month, the New York State Public High School Athletic Association expects to host its first cheering clinic for coaches, saying it recognized "the need to minimize risk and improve technique," said executive director Nina Van Erk.

"Some of my most severe injuries have been cheerleaders," said Kerry Gant, director of physical education, health, and athletics for the East Meadow School District. She supports the effort to make cheerleading a sport. "Either they were thrown up in the air and caught incorrectly, or someone is thrown up and they came down incorrectly."

With about 114,000 high school boys and girls competing across 5,070 high schools nationwide, cheerleading has evolved from a pep-rally sideshow to a major competitive force where challenging gymnastic moves and difficult stunts are the norm. More than 230 middle-school and high-school cheering coaches in Queens and on Long Island belong to the Long Island Cheerleading Coaches Association. They compete not just locally but in regional and national contests as well.

About 10 specialized cheer gyms have opened on Long Island in the past several years that train teen girls and boys in choreography, tumbling and stunting, according to the Gail Verne, president of the local coaches' association. These gyms cater to traditional school squads and private "all-star teams" that mainly compete with each other.

Major ruling in Wisconsin

Cheering has changed so much that recently the Wisconsin State Supreme Court deemed it a "contact sport," similar to football or basketball. Although the ruling has no legal impact here, it has strengthened arguments locally that cheerleading should be a sport.

Local numbers are hard to come by as New York State does not regulate cheering as a sport. But nationally, high school and college cheerleaders account for more than half of the catastrophic injuries to female athletes according to a recent report by the University of North Carolina-based National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. Catastrophic includes major injury, paralysis and death.

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons issued a caution on cheer injuries at the start of this school year, citing data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission stating that cheerleading injuries had more than doubled since 1990 and were estimated to have reached 74,000 in 2007.

"Cheerleading has evolved into a physically demanding and competitive sport requiring complex gymnastic maneuvers that pose a serious threat of injury," says Dr. Daniel Green, spokesman for the AAOS and a pediatric orthopedic surgeon based at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.

Cheer squads' moves are often scored on the degree of difficulty involved. But the cheering community has placed greater emphasis on safety, and emergency room visits for injuries have leveled off in the past five years, according to James Lord, executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators.

He cited a Consumer Products Safety Commission study that looked at emergency room visits. The study showed there were 1,628 more emergency room visits in 2004 than there were in 2007, when there were 26,786 visits for all ages of cheerleaders.

Injuries level off somewhat

The trend follows 15 years of increasing injuries. "This is great news," said Lord, "since that is around the time when more states started requiring coaches training, when the NCAA required coaches training and when we made some major changes in what skills were allowed on basketball court surfaces for high school and college teams."

Injury statistics also can be "skewed" because cheering is a two-season sport, which in effect can double the number of recorded injuries, Verne said.

On Long Island, school team coaches follow the National Federation of State High School Associations guidelines. These ban certain moves and stunts and requires other safety measures such as mandatory mats for some tosses.

The Long Island Cheerleading Coaches Association also builds on these regulations. For example, the local group has banned basket tosses at the middle-school level, which the national federation does not, Verne said.

In cheerleading, as with other school activities, the school is not liable if a student is hurt while doing a supervised activity when the injury could not have been avoided by reasonable care by school officials, said Lawrence Kessler, a Hofstra University law professor. For example, a gymnast may twist an ankle falling off a balance beam, and no one may be liable. But if the beam is faulty or the coach is irresponsible, then schools can be found liable. Some districts require parental permission and physicals to cheer, but others don't, said Gant of East Meadow. Her district requires both.

The coaches' association offers a 2 1/2-hour safety clinic every year - open to all cheer coaches even nonmembers. But only coaches who have completed the safety course can have squads compete in a LICCA competition, Verne said.

Making cheering a sport would mean establishing a season and allowing squads to compete in only sanctioned events, Van Erk said. The designation would also give recognition to the participants who work as hard as other athletes, some coaches said.

"We practice three hours a day, five times a week sometimes six days a week. We run three miles alongside the football players, my girls are accomplished athletes," said Anna Spallina, coach of the Rocky Point High School squad, which placed ninth in the nation this year in the medium-varsity division.

"It's an extremely athletic sport, a demanding sport now, it requires the same sort of commitment as any other varsity or junior varsity sport," said Mark Donnelly, former Centereach coach who is now co-owner of the L.I. Cheer gym.

Anthony Cerullo, the Amityville district's director of physical education, health and the nurses, said he has often advocated formal recognition for cheering.

"If you have cheerleading stunts and tumbling and are doing pyramids, I would classify that as a contact activity," he said.

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