When Leslie Anderson talks about preparing her cheerleading squads, she doesn't mean fixing hair, painting toenails, fluffing pom-poms or securing a date to the prom with the varsity quarterback.
This is not your mother's cheerleading squad.
Anderson, director of the all-star cheerleading program at Hayden's International Gymnastics Academy in Evans, talks about tumbling, stunting and weight training. Some of her cheerleaders also run track and play basketball or soccer for their high school teams.
A few of them will even get college scholarships, and it's not for sitting on a bench winking at Johnny Pointguard or throwing their best "spirit fingers" into the air.
"We're chipping away at the image slowly," said Anderson, a former Lakeside High cheerleader with fifteen years of experience in the sport. "I really get teed off when I see articles that ask 'Is cheerleading a sport?' It's still controversial and it gets me going, but people don't see the daily training."
All-star cheerleading is on another level compared with traditional high school squads, which struggle to shake the image created by decades of cute cardigan sweaters and minimally athletic chants. This is the stuff you see on ESPN at 3 a.m. with five-foot-two-inch bundles of muscle being propelled twisting and flipping 15-feet above the stage. Routines are tight, physical and hyper-kinetic - a cross between a gymnastics floor exercise, a trapeze act and a Miami dance club on a Friday night.
"Cheerleading is now designated as a real sport," said Dennis Hayden, coach and co-owner of the facility with his brother Daniel. "I think it's beginning to change its image into something that demands discipline. You're putting long hours in to be good at it and there's a lot more tumbling involved."
Alumni of the Arizona State University gymnastics program, the Haydens have 30 years of experience in that sport and have operated gyms in Augusta for seven years. They found such interest in cheerleading locally that five years ago they instituted the all-star program, which now trains more than 200 students and employs four coaches.
"With the difficulty and the strength that these girls need to have to be on the all-star team, and even in high school the quality's going up, they need to start early," Dennis Hayden said. "They need to develop their tumbling, they need to develop their stunting, they need to develop their strength."
Cheerleaders have more incentive to put in those hours now than just standing on the sidelines. State, regional and national competitions give cheerleaders their chance to be the center of attention. According to Anderson, the vitality of the competitive circuit is the biggest reason for the sport's popularity.
"They don't get recognition when they cheer for their schools," she said. "This gives them recognition for themselves, they cheer for themselves."
Hayden's already has four all-star squads ranging in age from eight to 18, but they're banking that the cheerleading boom will only get louder. A 9,000-square-foot cheerleading-only facility is currently being added to the Evans gym and is scheduled to open in September. Features include a recessed foam-block floor offering safer landings - and falls - than most high school gyms, more than 800-square-feet of mirrors and a pro shop.
"The coaches have a lot of experience, so they've been to a lot of gyms," said Daniel Hayden. "They've given us a lot of ideas about the design of the building. They recommended the height of the ceiling, the mirrors and the recessed floor was a great idea. We're also going to have weight-training machines if we can find something adequate for the ages. When you're stronger, you have less injuries."
And more chances to tumble and stunt into the limelight.
"The ultimate goal of any cheerleader is to get that college scholarship," Anderson said. "But after college you see a lot of businesses hiring cheerleaders, especially if you're dealing with people, sales or marketing. They hire a lot of peppy people. So not only does cheerleading teach self-discipline, motivation, commitment and teamwork, it helps with your career. It's a lifelong lesson that you learn: you set goals and you go out and get them."
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