A sport that makes you smarter
Whether they fly through the air, hoist teammates on shoulders or catch them as they fall, one thing’s for sure: It’s a rough-and-tumble world for cheerleaders.
The all-girls varsity and junior varsity teams at Park City High School spend hours fine-tuning stunts after the final bells have sent classmates home, and practices are often relegated to hallways.
The team rolled out a large red mat Monday and, as though they couldn’t help but start an impromptu pep rally, their calls of encouragement ricocheted off the walls.
The mood grew serious, though, as they settled into their regimen of arabesques, lifts and tumbles that have become standard fare at football games so far this year. That’s not all that has been on display, educators insist. A beefed-up regimen of books and brawn has given the once foundering program new relevance.
"Cheerleading has really evolved over the last several years," explains Katy Heddens, who took over the program at PCHS at the beginning of the year. "It’s no longer just a pep sport. It’s a sport that requires physical fitness, athleticism and dance. Our girls are socially outgoing and socially responsible."
In addition to boostering for prep sports, making posters and leading chants, today’s cheerleaders offer impressive academic resumes. The varsity squad at PCHS boasts the highest cumulative grade-point average 3.6 of any squad in the last ten years. It’s also the first year in memory that no cheerleader has been benched because of academic probation.
The team, made up of six seniors and a junior, bounds past the district-mandated 2.0 in part because of Heddens’ disciplined approach. The gymnast and former high- school health and physical education teacher instituted a mandatory study hall once a week for cheerleaders this year and raised the minimum GPA requirement to at 2.8, almost a full point above the standard for all other prep sports.
"I want to help them be successful," Heddens said matter-of-factly. "They’re student athletes; they’re students first and then athletes." She added that extracurricular activities like dance and cheerleading strengthen peer groups and help kids manage seemingly impossible workloads. "They’re taking some pretty heavy schedules," she admitted. "There’s something about the natures of sports and the nature of gymnastics that helps kids with time management."
Heddens knows about academic balancing acts. She was a cheerleader in her high school in Maryland, where she maintained a 3.9 GPA. The difference for her students, she said, was that they have the chance for scholarships for cheerleading.
Beyond procuring money for school, some say cheerleading actually makes students smarter. Just ask Sierra Brassey, a senior on the squad who has earned a near-perfect GPA so far this year. She said has benefited from one-on-one attention from her teammates and the added motivation of what some members call "positive peer pressure." "I don’t think my grades would be as high without cheerleading," she confessed. "I wouldn’t be motivated to work as hard."
It used to be that girls participated in cheerleading because they lacked other interests, Heddens said, but that is no longer the case for the modern cheerleader at least not the ones on her squad. Brassey, like many of the other girls on the team, comes from an eclectic sports background. She plays softball. "In softball, an individual could play bad, but others can still pick up the slack," she said. "But if one person isn’t doing their job in cheerleading then five people look bad. If a girl falls, it takes everyone to catch her." (The comment garnered a roomful of ‘ahs.’)
Whitney Roberts, another senior teammate, added, "It’s our job to keep people motivated."
Heddens encourages her students to bring homework to practice, and to the Wednesday study group, to both give and receive help hitting the books before they hit the mats. Just a few weeks ago, practice was crowded with ACT study books. The girls rehearsed quadratic equations and drilled each other on grammar in earnest. The academic bent allows the varsity team to tutor younger girls and cement their own knowledge of the material. "They really are each other’s support group," Heddens said.
The Park City High School cheerleading team holds tryouts this week to try to attract off-season athletes, men, and anyone else interested. For more information, contact Katy Heddens at Black Diamond Gymnastics, 615-8100.
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Summit County Attorney Margaret Olson has decried what she called a lenient sentence in a child sex abuse case in which a 20-year-old reportedly attempted to impregnate a 12-year-old. The perpetrator was sentenced to 20 days in jail and 10 years of probation.