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Cheerleading is top cause of girls' sports injuries

WASHINGTON — Cheerleading accounted for two-thirds of sports-related deaths or serious injuries to high school girls over the past 25 years, according to a new nationwide study.

It's because cheerleading increasingly requires complex — and dangerous — gymnastics stunts, said report author Frederick ­Mueller, who directs the University of North Carolina's National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research in Chapel Hill, N.C.

”Many of the coaches weren't ready for that kind of change and weren't ready to teach those kinds of activities“ when cheerleading shifted away from just pompons and chants, Mueller said.

Today's cheerleaders perform such athletic feats as the basket toss, where a cheerleader is thrown 20 feet in the air and then caught in her teammates' interlocked arms. There's also the helicopter toss, where a cheerleader makes a 180-degree, helicopter-blade rotation after being flung in the air.

”You didn't see a basket toss 15 to 20 years ago,“ said Susan Loomis, cheer and dance director for the National Federation of State High School Associations, an Indianapolis-based organization that writes rule books for high school sports. ”Now every little team from tiny northern Montana to the bayous of Louisiana does a basket toss.“

Last year's rate for catastrophic injuries in cheerleading was 2.0 injuries out of 100,000 athletes. For football, it was 3.2 injuries out of 100,000, said Mueller.

By his study's tally, 103 female high school students suffered sports-related catastrophic injuries — deaths, permanent disabilities and serious injuries such as skull fractures — between 1982 and 2007. Of that number, 67 were cheerleaders.

After cheerleading came gymnastics, with nine injuries, and track, with seven.

Cheerleading has changed tremendously in the last 25 years, said John Ireland, owner of Lexington Gymnastics and Cheerleading.

e_SDLqBring It On has taken over cheerleading,“ said Ireland, referring to the series of teen movies featuring fierce cheerleading competitions.

Cheerleaders are frequently no longer cheering for their sports teams, but cheering for themselves with a focus on winning competitions, said Ireland, a former University of Kentucky cheerleader.

The success of Central Kentucky cheerleading squads, especially UK's and Dunbar's, and the creation of more gyms designed to produce competitive squads, have helped make the sport more physically challenging.

Squads are ”having to raise the bar (on the stunts they do) to be more competitive,“ said Ireland, whose gym focuses on recreational cheerleading.

Gymnastics are also becoming an integral part of cheerleading at all levels which can lead to more injuries.

At the same time, he said, the cheerleading community has taken steps to make the sport safer. The United States All-Star Federation for Cheer and Dance Teams, for example, sets stands for acceptable stunts, certifies coaches and sanctions competitions.