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'It's a lot more than rah-rah': The athletics of cheerleading

MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- Competitive cheerleading has become one of the toughest and most dangerous sports in the nation. Beyond its typical image of pom poms and pretty women, the modern cheerleader is an athlete well past the sidelines of the field.

Kendyl Campbell, a cheerleader at Georgia College of Milledgeville says it takes more than good looks.

"Cheerleading is a lot more than 'Rah Rah,'" she said. "We really don't even do cheers that much at practice, we do stunts and tumbling and really dangerous stuff."

Even as it struggles to be recognized as a true sport, cheer teams across the country often work as hard as most football and basketball athletes.

Clay Ricks, who's also on the Georgia College cheer team, says it takes guts.

"It's a lot more physically demanding than I ever thought possible, because instead of throwing footballs or basketballs, your'e throwing people through the air and hoping they flip and you've gotta catch them," he said.

Like any sport, cheerleading does come with its share of potential injuries. According to the American Neurological Association of Neurological Surgeons, it's among the top 20 sports with the highest rate of head injuries.

Dr. Hugh Smisson III, a neurosurgeon at the Georgia Neurological Institute of Macon, says concussions are prominent.

"Your first problem that we all think of is a concussion or a head injury, and we personally see the most, I think, statistically it's about thirteen percent of cheerleading accidents are concussions," Smisson said. "Remarkably, if you look at the statistics, you think of them...well are they gonna hit the floor? Most concussions in cheerleading are caused from elbows from other participants, more so than having a dead out fall and hitting the floor."

Campbell said she knows the reality of recovering from a concussion injury all too well.

"I just got over a concussion, this is actually the first day that I've tumbled," she said. "I've had a concussion, I got it October 1st, and it's lasted like two months, it was a really long concussion. I've had a lot of problems with it, I've had constant headaches for like two months, I couldn't see, I got behind on my school work, but it's getting over it now. People just don't realize how easy it is to get a concussion in cheer."

Your standard cheerleading stunt group is made up of a flyer, two bases and a back spot who all work to support the flyer, while executing the stunt. This is not an east task which takes a lot of skill and strength, as it's tough to lift an entire person.

Ricks was once a part of a stunt that didn't quite work out as planned, causing his shoulder to over-rotate.

"Last October, I actually tore my labrum in my shoulder. We were performing for Bobcat Madness," he said. "We did a stunt and it didn't cooperate with me and I messed up my shoulder and then I've been out since October of last year, slowly recovering, I got surgery in June to fix it and I've been out recovering."

Smisson says the sport also brings on the potential risk of even more serious injuries.

"The more common thing that we see however, remarkably are spine injuries, and although you worry about the devastating spine injury...you know, could you break your neck being thrown in the air? Yes, you can. And I think most of them practice with a lot of padding around them and just like the gymnast do, when they're on the field that potential is certainly there," he said.

So for those who are still on the fence about whether or not cheerleading is actually a sport? In December of 2016, the International Olympic Committee decided to consider it as such, making it a provisional sport.

Over the next three years, cheerleading will have a chance to prove itself and can petition to become an official Olympic sport.

So the next time you happen to see a cheer squad along the sidelines of the gridiron or a court giving their all, remember there's is a bit more that meets the eye.

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