A Season on the Brink 

Here's to the "neglected sisters" of the U of M's spirit squads.

George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Gloria Steinem, Meryl Streep, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Madonna, Samuel L. Jackson, Reba McEntire, and Ronald Reagan: What do they have in common? What could they have in common with Kristen Murdock, Casi Davis, Courtney Powell, Ashley Chambers, Monica Moody, Kristen Kern, and Callee Jackson?

Cheerleading, that's what, and it's the subject of Cheer! (Touchstone/Simon & Schuster) by Kate Torgovnick. But if you don't recognize that latter list of names above, you will after following all seven of these young women — Torgovnick did, from tryouts, to "spirit camp," to a national cheerleading competition — as the 2006-'07 University of Memphis All-Girl Tigers.

Don't confuse them with the school's coed squad — the squad that performs at the U of M men's basketball games and the squad that gets the TV airtime and the bigger budget. But don't think these "girls" — under head coach Carol Lloyd — can't execute a Rewind, a Double Down, a One-Man Walk-In, a Toe Touch Back Tuck, and a 2-2-1 Pyramid with the best of them. In fact, the All-Girl Tigers were the best of them, according to judges at the 2004 national championships conducted by the Universal Cheerleaders Association, an organization founded by Jeffrey Webb in Memphis over 30 years ago and not to be confused with the National Cheerleaders Association.

No trouble, though, distinguishing the All-Girl Tigers from the Lumberjacks of Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. (They're coed.) Or the Southern University Jaguars from Baton Rouge. (They're strictly African-American.) But all three teams are "on a quest for college cheerleading's ultimate prize": national champs. The subtitle of Torgovnick's book says so, and Torgovnick's one to know. Her specialty as a writer/editor — onetime for Jane; now for Dame — is "extreme sports."

"Extreme" is the right word for cheerleading at this level. But a "sport"? The schools don't consider it one. Nor does it fall under the jurisdiction of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It's an "activity" that just happens to call for athleticism, timing, concentration, strength, training, endurance, and the possibility of serious injury. Or do you not remember the sight of Kristi Yamaoka of Southern Illinois University, who went, during one routine, from the top of a pyramid down to the hardwood during the 2006 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament? To the sound of 14,000 screaming fans, she was wheeled off the court on a stretcher, her neck in a brace but her free arm moving to the beat of the Southern Illinois fight song. She left the arena with a concussion and fractured vertebrae, but she landed on the Today show, interviewed by Katie Couric (another former cheerleader).

That — Yamaoka's fighting spirit, not her Today show appearance — takes uncommon commitment, and, as Torgovnick points out, in the world of competitive cheerleading it sometimes takes more than commitment. It can mean steroids for the guys on the squad, diet pills for the women. But, if anything, the all-girl teams have it their way. They welcome a wide range of body types — the stronger a team member, the better she can perform as a "base" for the "flyers" on the squad. Others point to the "unique" bonding experience a female team offers. The All-Girl Tigers, Torgovnick writes, "are on the forefront of this shift, which would make even the starkest feminist applaud. If only they'd change the division name to All-Woman." "All-girl," though, definitely applies to the youngsters at the Memphis Elite gym, founded by the U of M's spirit director Frankie Conklin in 1992, making it one of the first cheerleading training grounds in the country.

Which makes the ACU national championships in Orlando the ultimate proving ground. How did the All-Girl Tigers do in the competition that Torgovnick describes? You won't read the result here. See, instead, the dramatic outcome in Cheer!. And while you're at it, congratulate your All-Girl Tigers of today. They finished first in the nation at this year's contest, but Kristen, Casi, Courtney, Ashley, Monica, Kristen, and Callee weren't there for the award. Not one of them is still leading cheers.

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