Iowa Alumni Magazine | June 2005 | Features

Good Sports

By Lin Larson
Weight, weight! Don't tell me those cheerleaders can lift like this!

They only have to ask. Standing astride a teammate's shoulders, a young woman in black and gold lifts a sign that makes a simple request: "NOISE." The crowd on hand for the Iowa-Purdue game responds with a roar that shakes Kinnick Stadium, and, though she's seen it all before, the woman with the sign looks a little astonished.

Any Iowa cheerleader will tell you that this is the moment, the one that starts the blood pounding and the skin tingling. "To this day, I still get goosebumps," says Kellie Pierce, a UI sophomore from Oregon, Illinois, who has cheered with the Iowa squad for two years.

It's surprising what stunts, yells, big personalities, and even bigger props can accomplish on a stage as vast as Kinnick. Throughout the game, the cheerleaders roll with the action on the field and rally the fans—already buoyed by an unseasonably warm November afternoon and some mid-day celebrating.

The women shake black and gold pom-poms; the men pump their fists. Whenever
there's a chance, four men take up stations in corners of the field and wave
enormous I-O-W-A flags. The crowd chants the letters, which can echo even after the flags have fallen. Later, members of the Iowa team make their way around the stadium to greet their Purdue peers. They're ambassadors as well as home-team boosters.

The 40-strong UI cheerleading team is split evenly between women and men. Half of them comprise the Gold Squad, where members build experience by cheering at volleyball and women's basketball games. The more experienced Black Squad cheers for football and men's basketball.

The cheerleaders fulfill a traditional role, supporting UI teams and representing the university through appearances at grand openings, school visits, even birthday parties. But cheerleading itself is a sport in transition. If you call it a sport, that is.

"We're athletes, but it's not a sport," says Gregg Niemiec, Iowa cheerleading coach and coordinator for the UI "spirit squads"—the cheerleaders, the dance team, and the Herky mascots. "In sports, the first thing you think of is competition, but we don't compete on a regular basis. It would make for a really crazy year to have to compete every weekend on top of practices and games and everything else."

Other cheerleading advocates see things differently, noting the proliferation of competitions and suggestions that cheerleading become an Olympic event. The University of Maryland recently classified women's competitive cheerleading as a varsity sport under Title IX, the federal law mandating gender-equity in college athletics.

Regardless of how you categorize it, the athletic demands of cheerleading are obvious at daily practice for the UI squad. The two-hour routine begins with a run and stretching, then tumbling, pyramids, and partner stunts performed by male-female pairs. Optional open gyms held throughout the week offer additional practice and a chance for cheerleading hopefuls to meet and work out with the team.

"We have open tryouts in the spring and fall," Niemiec says. "The spring tryout for Black Squad includes students who are already on campus, so incoming freshmen can't take part. They can try out for Gold Squad in the fall, spend a year or two there, and—we hope—gain the skills to move up."

In tryouts, stage presence is just as important as physical ability. "We look for crowd leadership and general personality—smiley, happy people," Niemiec says. "Tumbling has become more and more predominant, so students also have to be able to show athletic skills."

Niemiec came to the UI in the fall of 1996, a former gymnast who cheered in college, studied sports management, and worked in the cheerleading industry. That's right, there's a cheerleading industry, including companies such as Varsity Brands, which dominates the market for cheerleading equipment, camps, and competitions for school-affiliated teams.

Also fueling interest and profits is the so-called "all-star" cheerleading circuit, made up of independent gyms and teams that exist only to compete with each other. The all-star squads put on elaborately choreographed routines, but they'll never lead a fight song or cheer for another sport.

"There are a couple of all-star teams in Iowa, but in the Chicago suburbs there are dozens of them," Niemiec says. "They help kids build skills, but when those kids come to college, they often have trouble with motions and other things you learn on the sidelines."

"You find that girls and guys who did game cheerleading bring better experience," says Katie Wanless, a third-year student from Decorah, who, as the daughter of a cheerleading coach, has cheered most of her life. "If you don't know the games, it's hard to jump into them."

Wanless chose the UI for college hoping to become a Big Ten cheerleader. Enthusiastic and energetic, she seems to have the perfect personality for cheering.

Flipping out in practice, cheerleaders show some of the basic tumbling skills they need to master.

"If I'm being really hyper sometimes, someone will be like, 'Are you a cheerleader?'" she says with a laugh. "They can just tell, and usually they think it's pretty cool." She aims to earn her coaching certificate and follow in her mom's footsteps once she puts her Big Ten career behind her.

Like Wanless, most of Iowa's women cheerleaders arrive via the traditional route. The men come from all kinds of backgrounds—gymnastics, wrestling, and other sports, but seldom cheerleading—and it's not always easy to recruit them. Niemiec says that in some years, he and the team wander the UI Field House, scouting out male prospects and urging them to give it a shot.

"We've got guys who never thought about this before, but we just catch them at the right time," Niemiec says. "Then there are a few who actually cheered in high school and know what they are getting themselves into."

"My sister got me started," says Jarrek Lucke, a first-year student from Fulton, Illinois. "She graduated a few years ago and got me going to open gyms. I've always been athletic and wanted to be involved, so why not cheerleading? You get to go to games and cheer on the Hawks."

Lucke wondered at first what his buddies might think, a concern common among male cheerleaders. But they don't get much flack—at least not for long. "You quell that real quick by tossing a girl up and holding her on one hand—'So, what were you saying about me?'" he says.

Physically, if female cheerleaders benefit from being lithe and light, the men are best served by being strong. For most, this means a regular weightlifting regimen on top of practice, games, and events. Lucke, who's relatively slight next to his burly male teammates, works out at least three times a week.

Co-ed stunting is new to most of the UI cheerleaders, men and women alike, as most of the women previously cheered with all-female teams. It takes time and practice to feel comfortable being thrown into the air or balancing on a partner's uplifted palms.

When the team works on its high-flying stunts, trust is in the air.

"We start out with the basics down low and work our way up. That way you can build trust," Pierce says. Although a bad fall can break that confidence, she knows there's only one way to rebuild it—by getting back in the air. "You keep going and then they catch you," Pierce adds. "Once they catch you, you trust them again."

For the most part, women and men on the Black Squad work together in set pairs, though they also practice "stunt circles," where the women rotate among their male teammates. Big Ten rules limit traveling teams to only six cheerleaders, so regular partners won't always travel together.

Trust is only one aspect of cheerleading's mental game. Also essential is learning to perform before thousands of spectators, not all of them friendly. Some pretend they're facing empty stands, while others bask in the adrenaline surge boosted by a rowdy crowd.

When those crowds turn ugly on the road, the best strategy is to stay focused and keep smiling. "You have to block out everything they say," says Pierce, recounting a particularly difficult time spent smack in front of the opposing school's student section. "If you listen to them, it will make you so upset."

Also essential is teamwork and the willingness to keep trying new routines, sometimes over and over and over again. At one practice, the Black Squad attempts a new and particularly challenging pyramid. Four men line up across the bottom tier, supporting three women on their shoulders. Two of the women attempt to lean sideways to hoist the third to the top. They almost succeed, but it's clear this pyramid scheme won¹t appear in a game-day routine anytime soon.

While mats and spotters are plentiful at practice, during games the most a cheerleader can hope for is a quick save from a partner or a soft patch of turf to break a fall. "When we're trying new things, we have at least one extra person spotting us," Pierce says. "At games, the only stunts we do are those we can hit ten out of ten times at practice."

For football games in particular, the cheerleaders get an early start. Hours before kickoff, they're outside Kinnick Stadium selling posters and working the crowds. Then they join the band and dance team in a pregame pep rally, showcasing their skills before an audience of mostly parents and family.

The show is one of the rare occasions when the cheerleaders and their cohorts enjoy top billing. Although the squad submits a qualifying tape each year to the Universal Cheerleaders Association (UCA, the division of Varsity Brands that runs the country's top contest for college teams), they don't always compete. They do, however, attend UCA camps each August. "We learn about techniques, safety, and events we can work on for the year," Niemiec says. "We get to meet a lot of Big Ten teams, some who will be coming here, others whom we'll be seeing on the road."

While the team practices new routines, spotters watch that everything goes well.

Between training, games, and events, cheerleaders can spend upwards of 20 hours a week, much more if it's the week of Homecoming or one that bridges the football and basketball seasons.

"We also do a wide range of public appearances. We'll visit retirement homes, do parades in the summer, basically anything we can fit on the calendar," Niemiec says. The team also accepts invitations for halftime shows at area high schools, or headlines special events for high school cheerleading and dance teams.

All this time spent together and the fact that cheerleading is the only co-ed athletic program at the UI boosts the possibility of romances between teammates. "There is actually a couple on the squad right now," Pierce says, "but, to me, it's a big family. They're my brothers and sisters. We're together every day, and that's how we act with each other."

Niemiec says that the last several years have seen the emergence of closer working relationships among the spirit squad programs, with the bands, and with the athletic department. He praises the latter for supporting the team.

"Some schools don't take great care of their cheerleaders and spirit squads," he says, "but ours does a great job of providing for us and assisting us." Trainers attend to cheerleading injuries, and members of the team have access to all the resources of the Athletic Learning Center. Through donations from cheerleading alumni, the team recently acquired another perk—partial book scholarships for third- and fourth-year members.

But UI cheerleaders take part in the program mostly for fun and camaraderie. There are no fawning fans, no bragging rights, no big pro contracts waiting after graduation—just the thrill that comes with being on the sidelines.

"Leading a crowd of 70,000 in Kinnick—that's a rush," Niemiec says. "That's what makes all the work worth it, getting the crowd up."

Wanless agrees, emphasizing that the nature of the experience makes a cheerleader's work easy. "It is totally overwhelming," she says. "There is just this energy. You can't help but smile."