Last night, after finishing episode six of Netflix’s Cheer, I dreamed I was a cheerleader again. I was about to go on the mat but I couldn’t because my hair wasn’t poofing the way it needed to. My rhinestone scrunchie wouldn’t hold my hair in place. In my dream, I didn’t bother trying to picture myself flying up in intricate stunts or doing long tumbling passes on the thin rollout mats. I spent the whole dream on the side of the mat trying to get my rhinestone scrunchie to work. Even in my dreams, I’m kind of a basket case and really not in that great of shape anymore.
The point is, Cheer got under my skin so deeply that I dreamed about it. I think I might even be a teeny bit traumatized. I loved the stories of the five cheerleaders profiled over the course of the series, every one of them an underdog in their own right, each with their own demons to fight.
(Warning: there are a few spoilers here.)
I think that, knowing what an expensive sport cheerleading is, it’s easy for people to assume that any kid who’s been participating in it their whole life must be privileged beyond belief. But many of these kids have been through hell and back. Sexual abuse, poverty, traumatic family break ups, even some jail time. Many of them credited cheerleading with saving their lives.
The coach, Monica Aldama, is exactly the relentless, show-no-mercy hardass you would expect her to be for someone who’s led her teams to 14 National Championships and five Grand National Championships. But it’s also plain to see that she loves those kids.
Of course, this is all the touching, feel-good stuff. The part that left me a bit traumatized is watching how hard these kids push themselves. The abuse they inflict upon their bodies is like nothing I have ever seen. After watching this series, I can’t think of a sport that is more dangerous than cheerleading. Statistics back this up — the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research reports that cheerleading accounts for 70.5% of all catastrophic injuries at the college level and 65.2% at the high school level. What is a catastrophic injury? The American Medical Association (AMA) defines it as “a severe injury to the spine, spinal cord, or brain, which may also include skull or spinal fractures.”
So as beautiful as cheerleading is to watch, I don’t think I could ever let my kids participate in it. I can’t imagine inviting that kind of injury onto my child. And yet I understand that for many, cheerleading is a love, a passion, something they can’t not do. I get that. Still, in episode three, when I watched Mackenzie “Sherbs” Sherburn hit the floor like a sack of bricks, I literally jumped out of my seat with my hands over my heart and screamed “HOLY SHIT” about twenty times. I had to rewind and watch again because I simply could not believe what I had just witnessed. With no protective layers on her body whatsoever, she slammed into the floor from a height of eight or nine feet.
Like most stunting cheer teams, the team at Navarro has a policy that if any part of any flyer’s body hits the ground during a fall, the entire team has to do 50 push-ups. But bodies sometimes still hit the floor. This particular fall, though, was especially violent. Sherbs isn’t just catapulted up in the air — she’s catapulted up and to the side, arcing over her team to another group of teammates who are supposed to catch her in their basketed arms. In this case, due to a misfiring of another flyer, her catching group still had hold of another girl and so weren’t available to catch her. So Sherbs went flying up and over the team and slammed into the hard mat with absolutely nothing to stop her. It really did sound like a sack of bricks hitting the floor.
To their credit, the Netflix crew did not walk up to get footage of Sherbs’s injury — they left space for others to get in and care for her. But interviews with the other cheerleaders and with the coach, Aldama, revealed that it had been a pretty grisly scene. Sherbs overextended her elbow and would be out for eight to ten weeks, with no chance of competing in the biggest competition of the year in Daytona, the very purpose of all the grueling practices.
That was the worst injury of the season, but definitely not the only one. As the competition drew nearer, more and more Navarro cheerleaders were injured. The bases, the big burly guys who toss and catch the flyers, complained of wrist and shoulder and back injuries, the cameras zooming in on their faces after stunts to reveal grimaces of pain. The flyers developed severely bruised ribs from being caught so many times. One flyer had to be taken out of her part of the pyramid, and another had such severe bruising on her ribs that a doctor told her to stop practicing. She kept going anyway.
Netflix crews mic the catches so you can easily hear the violent crashing sound of the girls’ bodies hitting the arms of their teammates. The bases try to catch as gently as they can, but these girls are often flying ten feet in the air, and transitions from one stunt to the next are fast. You can only catch so softly.
Watching these young adults on Cheer abuse their bodies this way, I feel a conflicted mix of awe for their commitment to their sport and disgust with the impossible expectations that are put on them. I know that sports are intense, I know that anybody who is really serious about a sport gives up something in order to compete. I know that many sports are rough enough that they make for short careers.
But when Morgan, a product of parental neglect selected by coach Aldama because she had “the look” and because she had potential, says, “People have broken their necks doing this, but Monica needs me to do it, so I’ll just do it. I would take a bullet for her,” I believe her. And that is either the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard, or the scariest.
But you better believe that if there’s a second season, I’ll be tuning in.
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