Oct. 4, 2007
By Sheena Nguyen
The last few minutes of the clock are ticking as the end of the fourth quarter approaches. The Huskies are just barely leading while the opponent is in possession of the ball. Fans are on the edge of their seats, almost too afraid to yell, brimming with anticipation.
Suddenly, you hear some familiar voices all shouting in unison. The word "DEFENSE" is loudly echoing all around you. When you look down to find the root of it all, you notice yourself staring at the all-too-recognizable faces of the Husky cheerleaders.
Week after week, win or lose, the Husky cheerleaders work hard to do their job, performing in front of a packed stadium, cheering on the team and getting the fans to follow in unison. It requires just as much work as any other intercollegiate sport but rarely gets credit.
Blame it on the media, the culture or even some cheerleaders themselves -- throughout the years, cheerleaders have clearly been tagged as ditzy accessories to a football game. Take the classic cheerleading movie Bring It On, which opens with the lines:
"I'm sexy, I'm cute, I'm popular to boot. I'm bitchin', great hair, the boys all love to stare, I'm wanted, I'm hot, I'm everything you're not. I'm pretty, I'm cool, I dominate the school. ... You hate us `cause we're beautiful, well we don't like you either. We're cheerleaders. We are cheerleaders. Roll call. ..."
Sure, it's funny, but movies like this don't do much to boost the reputation of cheerleaders beyond something to look at during timeouts.
What most people don't realize is that the Husky cheerleading squad is one of the most difficult teams on which to earn a spot. Members go through intense physical training, though they're often stereotyped as not being part of a real sport.
"If it's one thing I've learned about trying out for a collegiate sport, you really have to want it and let it show," said freshman cheerleader Selena Aphibal.
This truly has to be done, because as junior cheerleader Heidi Hankins explained, there are usually 15 to 20 judges sitting at a long table in a huge gym, and part of the tryout is to go into the gym by yourself and audition for all of these people. It's like being on trial, but instead of defending yourself verbally, you must perform standing flips instead.
It isn't really something anyone can just do on a whim, either. Aphibal referred to tryouts as "the most nerve-wracking thing ever."
"A lot of open gyms, private lessons and extra practice on my own time went into it," she said.
The squad has 28 members, and of the hundreds that try out during the spring, only the best are offered spots.
"Every year it is really intimidating because everyone at tryouts is incredibly talented," Hankins said.
Making the team isn't quite the last hurdle either.
"Practices are probably one of the hardest things I have ever had to do," Aphibal said.
For two to four hours, three times a week, these cheerleaders do cardio, tumbling, stunting and dancing.
"Often people will ask me what we do at practice for four hours, as if we do not have a lot to work on," freshman cheerleader Elizabeth York added. "I guess people must not understand the physical endurance, coordination and mental capacity necessary to be a cheerleader or dancer. From the minute the clock hits 4 o'clock, you can find us running stadium stairs, learning new routines and perfecting those we have already learned."
Even so, stereotypes about cheerleaders may never go away.
"Cheerleaders definitely have a stereotype that will probably always exist," Hankins said. "You always think of cheerleaders as ditzy. I probably would too when you see us bouncing around at games and looking really happy when a really bad play just happened, but we definitely know how to lighten up a bad situation."
Frequently some crueler jokes are aimed at the guys on the squad, even though they have one of the most difficult tasks -- lifting the girls up and making sure they are safe, balanced and don't fall.
"A lot of people come up to me and ask about the guys on the squad ... and start saying things like, `Oh, I bet they act like girls' and what not," Aphibal said. "But I just respond by asking, `Can you toss a girl in the air and hold her with one arm?' Then they are speechless."
Sophomore cheerleader David Ammentorp agreed.
"I think that my friends are quick to stand up for me, even in situations where I wouldn't need defending," he said. "I think that people generally have a lot of respect for us as athletes."
It's hard to imagine why some people would want to put themselves through the rigors and cultural clichés of being a cheerleader, but to those on the squad the reason is apparent.
"My favorite thing about being on the squad is being in front of the Husky crowd," Hankins said. "Every school that I've traveled to is nothing compared to the Husky fans. No matter if we win or lose the Husky crowd is always supportive, and I feel honored to be a part of that Husky tradition."
For cheerleaders, getting the chance to perform in front of the fans makes it all worth it.
"Practice is a big commitment, but it pays off when you are standing in front of a filled stadium on game day," York said.
So to answer the age-old question of whether or not cheerleading is a sport, you can decide for yourself.
"I don't know any other sports where you have to do flips all day, dance for eight hours straight, sweat like crazy and you still have to look good," Hankins said.