By Laura Hancock
Deseret Morning News
OREM — In a gymnasium at Utah Valley State College on a Wednesday night, the air is stale from the sweat of young men playing basketball. As they run the court, the squeak of shoes echoes off the large gym’s walls. And the basketballs — bam! bam! bam! — smack against the hardwood.
But in a corner of the gym behind some bleachers, about 20 men and women work on skills in another just-as-tough sport.The teammates move in sync with a woman’s voice. She counts, “One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. One-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. One-two-three . . . ” These athletes gyrate, tumble, flip, lift and tuck. Quick as cats, they climb into a human pyramid, then dismantle with similar ease, each body dropping from formation, flipping and twisting downward until landing — feet first — on the floor.
The UVSC cheer squad is preparing a routine to perform at halftime during a basketball game on Saturday. Earlier this month, the squad traveled to Las Vegas for a major competition, the 2005 USA Collegiate Nationals. UVSC nabbed sixth place in the large school-coed category — beating several Pac 10 schools. Other Utah colleges and universities also picked up trophies at the competition. Brigham Young University, Salt Lake Community College, Dixie College and Weber State University also won awards in various dance and cheer categories at the national contest. “Dance. Stunts. Tumbling. That’s what makes up a routine,” said Jake Spurlock, a member of UVSC’s cheer squad who majors in accounting. The routine they are doing for the game is the same one they did at the Las Vegas competition. This year, the UVSC squad was bumped into a more competitive category, against other four-year colleges with coed teams, said coach Jeannette DeGraffenried.
Routines can be physically draining. Sometimes during practice the squad refrains from difficult stunts to prevent exhaustion. “I think strength-wise, it’s more on the guys. For the girls, it’s leg work,” said DeGraffenried, a former UVSC cheerleader who made the team coed when she became coach five years ago. When a woman is lifted, she must squeeze every muscle in her body tight — and hold still. If she’s sloppy and relaxed, it feels like “she weighs 500 pounds more than she really does,” DeGraffenried said. Her cheer partner is trained to use his arms and legs to absorb her landing. Men use their legs in throwing and catching the women, too. “I tell the girls anytime they fall, to keep their arms straight in the air or straight down so they don’t elbow anyone,” DeGraffenried said. The physicality of performing on a cheer squads could make it a blood sport.
Members of UVSC’s squad have suffered split lips, concussions, shoulders pulled out of sockets, sprained ankles and broken feet. DeGraffenried begins to partner teammates during the first practice based on ability to work well together. She cannot pinpoint what qualities make good partners, however. “I don’t know. It’s ingrained. The guys know their job. The girls know their job,” she said. Members of the UVSC cheer squad are selected in a tryout process. If they win spots on the team, they receive partial college scholarships. In return, they practice seven hours a week and cheer at up to three games a week, beginning with volleyball. Many members go to the gym on their own time to lift weights or practice stunts, DeGraffenried said. “What’s nice about it is, in the college ranks you don’t have to baby-sit them,” DeGraffenried said. “They’re here because they want to be here. Not for the short skirt or name or cliques.”
Carissa Deason, who’s been on the UVSC squad for three years, wants to be a Utah Jazz Dancer. And she loves cheering for the fleeting moments when she’s “flying.” “I love to try scary things that make the crowd go, ‘Ahh,’ ” she said.
Aaron Samudio, 20, said he taught himself how to tumble and flip off walls. “It’s addicting to be up in the air, to be weightless,” he said. “I like how unique and how challenging it is. There’s not many people who can do it,” said Aaron Lattin, who is a team captain with Deason.
Spurlock got into cheering at Skyline High School because “I didn’t make the baseball team in ninth grade,” he said. Competition drives him. “It’s the competitive atmosphere against each other. You want to get better,” he said. “You work with your partner to become better.”