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It’s not just pom poms and being cute: Island cheerleaders are practicing a sport

When Michelle Corbett was a high school girl, Shelter Island Class of 1993, she decided to join the cheerleading team.

“I was a dancer, an actor, a performer,” she said this week, noting the reasons for her decision. It was only after she was on the team, at practices and games, that she realized that, beyond the performance aspect of cheerleading, it is a legitimate sport.

“It has all the requirements of a sport,” Ms. Corbett said, In addition to coaching the cheerleaders, she’s a teacher at the school, certified in special education K-12, social studies 7-12, and also teaches self-contained algebra.

“You have to be strong, flexible and athletic,” she said, adding that it doesn’t come easy to become a working unit, but practice, the same as for any sport, is essential to achieving goals, with the cheerleaders hitting the gym floor sometimes as often as six days a week.

“We are a team, but we’re made up of individuals,” she said. The sport requires collaboration and working as a unit.

The Shelter Island High School cheerleading team. Front row: Tola Bliss, Angelina Rice, Olivia Overstreet, Lily Page and MacKenzie Speece. Middle Row: Dariana Duran Alvarado, Franny Regan, Andrea Napoles, and Johanna Kaasik. Back row: Harper Congdon, Alex Burns and Arianna Carter. Not pictured: Margaret Schultheis, Madigan Teodoru, Danae Carter, Mary Gennari and Madison Springer. (Courtesy photo)

“We do a lot of stunts, that can be dangerous if not done correctly,” Ms. Corbett said. “You’re being thrown, literally, and so have to trust the person who’s throwing you. You have to be fit, mentally and physically.”

In May 2014, the New York State Board of Regents reached a milestone. There was a proposal before them to declare cheerleading an interscholastic sport. Although it gained immediate support from many organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), it took years to get a final unanimous vote from the Regents — 17-0 — that spring seven years ago.

Now more than 30 states have designated cheerleading as a sport.

The AAP argued that any activity involving 15-foot-high human pyramids and teenagers being tossed in the air should be subject to the same safety rules and supervision required of other recognized sports, a list that ranges from the physically brutal worlds of football and wrestling to softer games like golf and badminton.

A study released in 2012 by the AAP showed that significantly more than half the catastrophic injuries in college and high school female sports occurred in cheerleading. Ensuring these athletes’ safety should be of paramount concern to our high school athletic organizations, and designating cheerleading as a sport was an important step.

It’s far from just being cute and waving pom poms, but an authentic part of the educational process, Ms. Corbett said.

“Our purpose is to support the teams, but also bring school spirit and celebrate all of the school’s students,” she said. “We’re saying, ‘This is your school, your culture,’” and cheerleaders help students to take pride their environment.

Ms. Corbet took over coaching the cheerleaders in 2018 and noted that, for a few years before when there was no team, attending a Shelter Island High School game was different. “People attended, but there was not as much life in the gym,” she said. In addition, the cheerleaders decorate the gym with posters and banners, and the color and bright effects had been missing.

The mental part of the sport is as important as the physical, Ms. Corbett said. Deep breathing techniques are employed, and mediation is often used for focus and stress relief. “We emphasize the power of silence,” Ms. Corbett said.

When she was cheering for Shelter Island in the early 1990s, there was a boy on the team, but none this year.  “We’d love to have male cheerleaders,” she said. The team is open to all students grades 9 through 12.

Ms. Corbett said the sport teaches lessons beyond the gym. “I love to see so many girls excited, becoming strong women, understanding sisterhood and supporting other women,” she said.