Monday, March 17, 2008

Kate Torgovnick looks at competitive cheerleading in 'Cheer'

SPORTS: Kate Torgovnick looks at the competitive side of cheerleading
12:00 AM CDT on Sunday, March 16, 2008
By EDWARD NAWOTKA / Special Contributor to The Dallas Morning News

It's not just Texans who are obsessed with cheerleading. Turn on the television, and you'll see cheerleaders starring in Friday Night Lights and Heroes; they are the villains of countless teen movies, and increasingly, shown in competition on ESPN 2 and Fox Sports Net. It was only a matter of time before someone in New York commissioned a serious book about the subject. Kate Torgovnick's Cheer! is just such a book.

KATHERINE STREETER/Special Contributor
KATHERINE STREETER/Special Contributor

Focusing on competitive collegiate cheerleading, in which a team of cheerleaders performs an orchestrated two-minute routine of acrobatic stunts, Ms. Torgovnick embeds herself with three squads: the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks, from Nacogdoches, Texas; the Southern University Jaguars from Baton Rouge; and the All-Girl team from the University of Memphis. She offers a year-in-the-life of each, as they face their unique challenges.

The Lumberjacks, four time reigning national champs in their division, return to discover they will start the season with a new coach, one who'd graduated from SFA just two years earlier. The Jaguars, an African-American team known for their flashy moves, are cash poor and can't afford to travel to top-tier competitions. In Memphis, the All-Girls team struggles to win respect from their school, which limits them to cheering for women's basketball and volleyball.

It may come as no surprise that the shining star of the book hails from the Dallas area: The "uber-blonde" Sierra, from Arlington, is a veteran cheerleader who has won eight national titles at various levels and is expected to be the linchpin of this year's team at SFA. Unfortunately, Sierra also proves accident prone, breaking her hand in a fluke accident and later fracturing her skull.

The risk of injury is significant – of the 104 women athletes paralyzed or killed in high school or college sports over the last 23 years, over half have resulted from cheerleading. (One boyfriend shows his ignorance when he asks, after his cheerleader girlfriend complains about a sore wrist, "Did you clap too hard?") The rate of injury is just one of the arresting "secret life of cheerleaders" facts Ms. Torgovnick serves up, which also includes widespread drug and steroid abuse and eating disorders.

Ms. Torgovnick avoids traps that have snared far more experienced authors writing about college and sports: She doesn't sensationalize things (not dwelling on the clich├ęd, fetishistic sexualization of cheerleaders, for instance), nor does she wax philosophical (this is not Updike on golf), or pass judgment (she's no Tom Wolfe depicting college kids in I Am Charlotte Simmons). Just 27 when she researched the book, Ms. Togovnick is still young enough to genuinely empathize with these student-athletes. They let her share their meals, participate in a few heart-to-hearts and eavesdrop on gossip. The result is an engaging voyeuristic narrative that suggests these college cheerleaders are as close to real-life superheroes as exist.

Ms. Torgovnick's greatest contribution is the way she handles the sport's peculiar diction, explaining the differences between the "flyers," "tumblers," and "bases" who make up the teams, and elaborating on the subtleties of the various stunts, including the "scorpion," "standing back tuck," "liberty," "rewind" and "awesome." It's more than enough to persuade any doubter of cheerleading's validity as a sport, if not its artistry.

Edward Nawotka covers the South for Publishers Weekly. He lives in Houston and blogs at


Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize

Kate Torgovnick

(Touchstone, $24.95)

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