PADECKY: Competitive cheering is more than a rah deal

By BOB PADECKY
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Paige Podstata (left), a senior at Montgomery, poses with her championship medal. (Courtesy photo)

Paige Podstata (left), a senior at Montgomery, poses with her championship medal. (Courtesy photo)

I was walking out of the interview when I saw Pat McDonald, the girls soccer coach at Montgomery, in the office hallway.

“Pat, how many world champions have you met today?”

“Uh, none,” McDonald replied sheepishly.

“Well, then, please shake Paige’s hand.”

Paige Podstata, a Montgomery senior, shook McDonald’s hand, looking about as sheepish as McDonald.

“Still feels weird when I think of myself like that,” Podstata said.

But a world champion she is. Nearly all 50 states were there in Orlando April 29-30, as well as some big players from around the globe: Australia, New Zealand, China, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Russia, Jamaica, Mexico, Canada and Japan. Podstata has a gold medal. The University of Oregon is interested in her.

Given that resume, you wouldn’t think Podstata would need to defend what she does 30 feet above the ground. She shouldn’t have to lower her voice when she names her ultracompetitive and very dangerous activity. She shouldn’t project even the slightest hint of embarrassment at a sport that could cripple her at any time.

“I am a competitive cheerleader,” said Podstata, one of the 30-member World Champion Livermore Black Ops cheer team … and so, go ahead, start the laugh track, might as well get it over with now. Cheerleading? A sport? Really? Gosh, why not call bobbing for apples a sport? Why not call break-dancing a sport?

“Competitive cheerleading is absolutely a sport,” said Dr. Ty Affleck, the team physician for Santa Rosa Junior College and Sonoma State University. “In the NCAA it is the No. 1 injury producer for women. It is very much like football is for the men at the collegiate level. It doesn’t get the respect the other sports do because it does not exist at the high school level.”

At its most base level, it doesn’t get the respect it deserves because it has that name attached to it — cheerleading. That word limits, degrades and ultimately diminishes the athlete competing. It is too strongly attached to cheerleaders we see at NFL games, eye-candy daisies who have only one purpose being on the sideline: To be a distraction during a bad game.

Competitive cheerleading needs to be called something else if it is to escape the hubba-hubba image. At Oregon they call it Acro and Tumble. They could call it The Holy Cow sport because that’s what people say when they see it, as they might have Sunday morning on ESPN. ESPN filmed the 2013 Cheerleading Worlds. Go to the “California All Stars” website, Podstata said, to get an eyeful. Or go on YouTube and type in those three letters.

“All I ask is people keep an open mind,” Podstata said.

Fact is, competitive cheerleading has as much in common with the cheerleading you see at a football game as a steak has with a muffin. Podstata tried the muffin during the summer before her sophomore year at Montgomery. She quit after two weeks. She had been a competitive cheerleader five years before that summer.

“Oh my God, I thought,” Podstata said. “I just can’t do this. There’s no talent involved. There’s no skill.”

Podstata didn’t mean to demean but she wanted an environment that would fulfill her competitive urge, develop and push her athleticism to its limits and make her feel as if every particle of her being was tapped to its max.

Competitive cheer does that for her in, frankly, an unimaginable way to most sports fans.

“At least 100 times,” is what Podstata said. At least 100 times at every practice she is thrown into the air. At least 100 times the people who catch her can’t have one lapse of concentration. Practice in other sports offers a walk-through in football, a basketball team running a new play slowly to learn or a baseball player taking batting practice while teammates wait to hit standing outside the batting cage.

Competitive cheer offers no moments of casualness because the results of a casual approach are horrific.

In the spring of 2007, with a grant funded by the NCAA, the America Football Coaches Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations, two physicians published a 43-page research report on catastrophic sports injuries. The period examined covered 24 years. The activity which resulted in more catastrophic injuries for female high school athletes was cheerleading, more than four times the number of injuries as gymnastics, the second-place finisher.

Podstata missed four months of practice last year when she tore two ligaments in her left ankle on a landing.

From last May to the end of April, Podstata drove to Livermore at least three days a week, six days a week within two month of worlds. On the way Podstata and her teammate Emilee Simon of Petaluma would psyche up themselves for the next practice.

Podstata is a flyer, the airborne one, because she is but 5 feet tall and 110 pounds, and so she would repeat to herself that her teammates would toss her and they would catch her.

“Trust is a big thing with us,” Podstata said. “It’s everything.”

She would accept the fact that the practices, ranging from two and half to four hours, would deplete her.

“Sooner or later,” she said, “everyone pukes at practices. Practice doesn’t stop. You run to the sink, lose it and come right back.”

She would understand why not everyone can believe competitive cheer breeds toughness.

“If you say to the coach, ‘I can’t do that.’ then you’re gone, you have to go,” Podstata said. “Sure, when the coach shows a new stunt, you can get nervous. You can say Holy Batman. But then you do it.”

Podstata, 18, then said something which sealed it for me. It is a statement any linebacker would be proud to make as he’s about to make a tackle. Or a batter who just hit the deck after an inside pitch. Or a basketball player about to drive into a sea of flailing elbows.

“In competitive cheer,” Podstata said, “there are no wimps allowed.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.

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