Not your average WVU athletes
Published: Thursday, September 27, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 27, 2012 07:09
Anyone who has cheered on the Mountaineers at a football or basketball game has seen the West Virginia University cheerleaders. Although some may notice the girls in the air with their cheerful smiles, fewer notice the guys holding them up.
Males actually started cheerleading in the late 1880s. According to West Virginia University cheerleading coach Christy Davis, the first cheerleaders at WVU were males as well.
On WVU’s Gold cheerleading squad, which cheers at football and men’s basketball games, there are typically eight-to-10 males each year. Davis said The Blue squad, which cheers at women’s basketball games, is similar in number, and all males start.
"It’s nice to have enough guys so every girl can have their own partner and improve in stunt skills as the year progresses," junior cheerleader Chelsea Eades said.
Senior and Theta Chi brother Justin Bell has been cheering for three years. Bell decided to cheer after being pressured by a female cheerleader.
"I went to a practice and saw the varsity guys doing some pretty cool stuff," Bell said. "I said to myself that I wanted to be able to stunt like that."
Graduate student Clayton Allison is in his fifth year of cheering. A high school friend encouraged him to cheer.
"She actually contacted me almost every other day for nearly a month until I came to a practice," Allison said. "After I attended one practice, I was hooked."
Sophomore and second-year cheerleader Nick Powell started cheering his freshman year.
"When I came to college, I was looking for something to keep me active and involved," Powell said. "Now, cheering is more of a stress relief or a break that I look forward to every week."
Almost all the guys agree cheering is something they never imagined they’d do.
Kris Lankford, now in his second year of cheering at WVU, says cheerleading is incredibly different from other athletics. In high school, Lankford played football and lacrosse, and he wrestled.
"In cheerleading, you have to use a lot more finesse," Lankford said. "It was easy to try to use brute strength while stunting at first, but moves wouldn’t be nearly as clean and are far more dangerous that way."
Bell and Allison also played football in high school.
"I never thought I would be doing this, but now I enjoy it very much and couldn’t imagine not doing it," Bell said.
Davis says no experience is necessary for males looking to cheer, but athletic ability is essential.
Eric Jenkins, who is in his third year cheering, didn’t find cheering too difficult to learn.
"Of course there were times that learning a new stunt was difficult, but that is with any sport that difficulties and obstacles arise," Jenkins said. "I think it helped that I had a strong weightlifting background, so I was able to master the strength part, but I had to work at the finesse."
According to Lankford, it was challenging at the beginning.
"When I first began, progression to new things was quick, and then I would reach a plateau stage," Lankford said. "Then, after working through that, new moves begin to hit, and it tends to cycle that way."
Allison agrees learning new skills is difficult at first.
"The physicality and skill needed to perform the stunts we do will blow you away," Allison said. "Hitting a highly difficult stunt is just as rewarding as making a big-time catch in football, a game winning goal in soccer and so on."
Allison also said the competitiveness of he and his teammates helps them get better each week.
"We have good days and bad days where we struggle when learning a new skill," Allison said. "We know we aren’t going to hit things perfectly on our first attempt, and it’s tough working through it, but we all want to be the best."
Eades agrees the guys are competitive, which only benefits the team.
"Sometimes, they’ll compete with each other to see who can hold the longest stunt or who can do the most difficult stunt," Eades said.
Being a WVU cheerleader requires time commitments. When they aren’t practicing for two hours each Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, they also make time for games and preparation – especially when traveling to away games in the Big 12. They also balance school, as well as other activities.
Bell said his fraternity isn’t as much of a time commitment as cheering.
"The real balancing act is trying to juggle traveling with the team while also being a productive student," Bell said.
According to Davis, the talent the males bring to the team is obvious.
"They allow us to do an entirely different level of pyramids because of their strength," Davis said. "As females, we can cheer on the team, but our voices are soft even when yelling at our loudest. The males’ voices really add depth, which allows them to lead our crowd cheers well."
Davis said the males add balance to the team. She also noted the spirit the men possess is incomparable.
"They love the sports that they cheer for, and they really root for them and cheer them on," Davis said.
According to Davis, in recent years, they have had some trouble recruiting males – she isn’t certain as to why. She believes it could be because of the stereotypes regarding male cheerleaders.
Those involved know the negative stereotypes are far from the truth.
"When people hear about male cheerleaders, they don’t think about them being strong and competitive, and they just assume they are like the girls – happy and preppy," Eades said.
"These guys are throwing girls up in the air; that’s definitely not girly and takes lots of strength."
The guys agree dealing with the negative stereotype can be difficult.
"We’re always defending ourselves against people who don’t understand why we do what we do," Bell said. "I have pretty thick skin, so it’s not a very big deal, but when I first started, I caught a lot of grief for it."
According to Powell, he struggled with the stereotypes when he first started cheering, but now he gets little negativity about it.
"Most people are more impressed and tell me how lucky I am to be doing what I do," Powell said. "If anyone does say anything, I tell them to look at the girls they hang out with compared to the girls that I hang out with."
Jenkins said there are stereotypes surrounding male cheerleaders that vary between positive and negative.
"There is obviously the male cheerleaders are gay reference, to which I respond by saying that I’m the one with my hands on girls all practice – what do you do?" Jenkins said. "However, on the flip side, there are the good stereotypes as well."
Jenkins said many talk about the strength it takes to lift girls or comment about how he’s surrounded by gorgeous girls all day.
"I have had to defend my reason for cheering many times and can usually convince the person that it is awesome," Jenkins said. "But frankly, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, because I love what I do
and wouldn’t quit for anything."
Another issue they face is the way the athletic department views them, according to Jenkins.
"We are regarded as athletes in some regards, but not in others, such as receiving gear and not getting priority registration as other athletes do, even though we put in many hours and represent WVU," Jenkins said.
Jenkins said he believes what they do qualifies as a sport.
"As a WVU cheerleader, where we throw the girls in the air all the time, I would have to say yes, it is a sport," Jenkins said.
Allison said many would be surprised by the amount of athleticism required to perform their stunts.
The job of being a male cheerleader is a tough one, according to the guys – but one they enjoy and wouldn’t trade.
"One of the best parts is being on the field," Powell said. "It’s such a rush when you’re leading the crowd and they respond in ‘Let’s Go, Mountaineers!’"
Jenkins agrees the perks are greater than the challenges.
"We have front row seats at all football and basketball games, so it really feels like we are in the action," Jenkins said. "You get great access to sporting events, travel and receive some public recognition."
Regardless of one’s
opinion on male cheerleaders, their work demands respect.
"Cheering for WVU is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made," Powell said. "We have a great program here at WVU and a great group of people, too."