The University of Maryland competitive cheer team, including Alison Iovino (right) and Tricia Fitzgerald (left), has won the national competition four times in its seven-year history.
Inside the pavilion on campus, the University of Maryland's competitive cheer team warms up with tumbles. Two young women take to the mat from opposite sides, looking all set for collision.
"Round off with back handspring, handspring full — that's how they tumble all the time, crossing each other. They're not going to hit," says Jarnell Bonds, head coach of competitive cheer at the university.
The Terps hold a partner stunt position called heel stretch. Competitive cheer is currently not recognized as an official sport by the NCAA.
The Terps hold a partner stunt position called heel stretch. Competitive cheer is currently not recognized as an official sport by the NCAA. Coburn Dukehart/NPR
They're known to many as cheerleaders — those pint-sized, superstrong women who flip, twist and hurl themselves into the air, wearing a smile while doing it.
But they want you to know they're athletes, too.
'Just As Demanding, Just As Tough'
An all-female squad, the Terrapins — more commonly called the Terps — have won the national competition four times in its seven-year history. With their high ponytails, braids and red-and-black uniforms, the squad is all-business.
Each member was scouted for the squad, and some study at the University of Maryland on scholarships. They strength-train and lift three times a week, and they practice stunts and tumbles, as they are called, for three hours a night, four nights a week.
To Bonds, their schedules are no less punishing than any other serious athlete's on campus.
Terps Danielle Jenkins (center), Kaitlyn Letourneau (left), and Courtney Fike (right) perform a stunt. At the University of Maryland, competitive cheer team members practice for three hours a night, four nights a week.
Terps Danielle Jenkins (center), Kaitlyn Letourneau (left), and Courtney Fike (right) perform a stunt. At the University of Maryland, competitive cheer team members practice for three hours a night, four nights a week. Coburn Dukehart/NPR
"It's just as demanding. It's just as tough as any other sport. To me, there's no difference between the amount of work and skill that these girls put in ... as opposed to [what] they [would] put into doing soccer or hockey or volleyball or something else," Bonds says.
But soccer, hockey and volleyball are all approved by the NCAA, which means they also get funding under Title IX, a federal law that requires universities to distribute their money equally between the sexes.
Competitive cheer is not even on the NCAA's list of "emerging sports." But it's trying to be.
From Competitive Cheer To Acrobatics And Tumbling
John Blake is the executive director at an organization with a name it hopes the rest of the country will start thinking of when they think of competitive cheerleaders: the National Collegiate Acrobatics and Tumbling Association (NCATA).
Blake's organization has created a format for competitive cheer meets that involves six events. Ultimately, the group has one mission: to make cheerleaders fully sanctioned NCAA athletes.
"We also want them to have the respect and recognition as athletes. That's a huge deal. We want these female athletes to be treated the same as the men's basketball team or the same as the baseball team," Blake says.
Arielle Brown, a senior at the University of Maryland, performs a running tumbling pass.
Arielle Brown, a senior at the University of Maryland, performs a running tumbling pass. Coburn Dukehart/NPR
That road is some ways off.
In September, Quinnipiac University was sued by its volleyball team because it wanted to shift Title IX funding to competitive cheer instead. The university lost. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill said cheerleading was "still too underdeveloped and disorganized."
The 95-page decision, however, did provide colleges, like the University of Maryland, a kind of blueprint for what it should be doing.
"[We] now have our own governing body, the NCATA. It's also sanctioned by USA Gymnastics, who sponsor gymnastics on the collegiate level and the Olympic level. So we've made great strides to structure ourselves," Bonds says.
Those strides have included fighting a public perception that competitive cheer is not a real sport.
More Hoops To Jump Through
But there may be an even greater foe for competitive cheer: the faltering economy.
USA Today sports columnist Christine Brennan says that right now, competitive cheer will miss out because most schools are staying with the sports they have, or are even cutting back.
"It's not fair to them, but it's the reality that they deal with, which is why they're changing their name and which is why they're trying to do so many things, literally jump through some hoops to make some changes. But it's a [public relations] battle they're fighting. And you combine the [public relations] battle with these tough economic times, and it's almost insurmountable," Brennan says.
The odds are indeed against competitive cheer, especially since only six colleges in the country have agreed to conform their cheer squads with the new guidelines.
But at the University of Maryland, the Terps squad goes through its paces.
Beyond the politics, lawsuits and controversy, the athletes are focusing on the new year. There are competitions ahead, whether they are officially recognized or not.