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The Virgin Cheerleaders

Abby Grace Shrader

     When you spend half your life on the mat, it begins to rewire your brain. Originally, when a 120 pound human body comes flying at you, limbs sprayed in every which way, you would run in the opposite direction, hands over the back of your head to protect yourself. But after just a month of cheerleading, you are suddenly throwing yourself under your teammate to keep them from smacking against the hard ground, which happens more often than you might think. Even with the mat beneath our pristine white shoes, I have witnessed way too many girls hit the ground with an echoing BAP! causing everyone to cover their mouths in horror.  

     It can be caused by a lot of different things. If one base throws harder than another, or the backspot pushes forward rather than up, or if the flier doesn't balance their weight, then the whole stunt can crumble. What happens next?  

     “That’s a lap!” My college coach booms.  

     Then the entire team, except the one girl who hit the ground, is running around the old gym. Even the girls who had nothing to do with the stunt are running, knees high, pony tails swishing behind them. Why? Because when they saw the flier start to fall, they should have sprinted across the blue mat to try to help catch her.  

     I understand the need for catching the flier. The mat offers almost zero actual protection from the linoleum floor, and on game days, the grass or court will offer even less.  

     I have been a base since I was twelve years old and while the side I stand on has switched depending on where I am needed most, I can do it in my sleep. For nearly a decade, I have spent hours underneath stunts, catching girls that are relatively my same size as they come spinning downwards. Being the base, I am expected to be solid. Little things going wrong cannot affect me, or else everything else will come tumbling down.  

     I learned quickly that the flier is always the most important person in the room. No matter how much pain it may bring you, you always save the flier. Even when they are just dead weight falling from high above your head, you stay put. You don’t run. You bend your knees, lock your arms, and catch. All while trying not to look like you are going to pee yourself.  

“SMILE!” My middle school, high school, and college coaches screamed repeatedly.  
     My first months cheering at my college, my arms were permanently spotted by bruises. I started wearing long sleeve shirts even in the dead heat because people in public were starting to give me weird looks.  

     About a month into my junior year of college, I went to the allergy doctor to see about getting on some kind of medication. I was getting sick of sucking up snot every few seconds.  

     “Alright, just tilt your head back for me. I’m going to see why we are seeing so much blockage up there.”  

     My doctor, whose accent was as thick as honey, shone a light up my nose in as polite a way as possible.  

     She pulled back the light, eyebrows scrunched together.  

     “Have you ever broken your nose before?”  

     I shook my head.  

     “Hmm. Do you play any sports?” I was already shaking my head when she added, “Cheer?” almost as an after thought.  

     “Yes ma’am.”  

     “Hmm. The break could have happened anytime in the last few years. Don’t worry, you can’t tell from looking at you, but your nasal passages are warped inside your nose. That’s why you can’t breathe.”  

     The surprise must have been evident on my face because she continued, “Don’t worry. We see this in cheerleaders all the time. Too many hits to the face that aren’t properly checked out.”  

     I thought back to high school, to middle school, and there were too many hits to the face to even know which one could have broken my nose. I thought of a time senior year, when a spinning flier’s elbow had popped me square on the nose.  

     We had been doing a full down. The flier starts in the bases hands, then she is tossed up, does a full 360 turn, and lands in the bases’ arms. All it takes in a twisty stunt like that is for the flier to loosen their arms just slightly, and suddenly limbs are hitting everyone on the way down. I remember my arms being wrapped around her torso and softly setting her white sneakers on the mat right before I felt something warm dripping from my nose.  

     A girl’s hands appeared under my nose, directing me to tilt my head back. Later, our coach would get onto her for catching my ruby red blood in her cupped hands, but she would insist that she had acted on pure instinct. 

     She’s in nursing school now, so I guess her instincts paid off.  

     I remember sitting on the floor with a wad of tissues pressed against my nose until the pure, bright red blood stopped oozing, just watching the stunts around me.  

     “You okay?” A girl mouthed at me from the mat. I could already see a blue bruise blossoming on her bicep.  

     I nodded and held up my bloody tissue as proof my nose had stopped gushing. My coach’s eyes caught my white flag waving in surrender and promptly told me to get back on the mat and try the stunt again.  

     Or maybe it was from our big rivalry game junior year - the one game I had been forced to sit out of.  

     It had happened during warmups, when the autumn sun was still in the sky. Before long, it would slink back behind the bleachers and people in the stands would share a shudder and begin pulling out scarves and blankets, all in our signature green and gold.  

     I still remember what uniform I was wearing too. It was forest green spandex material with a big shiny gold “S'' across the chest - the one that gave me the worst case of body dysmorphia. My hair was pulled up into the highest ponytail I could muster.  

     It was an away game, but since it was against our rival, the stands were already filling up. Their anxious chatter about our odds bounced down to us from the bleachers. Around me, girls buzzed back and forth, reapplying lipstick. I could hear the marching bands warming up. Inside the field houses, the boys were starting to chant. Before the game even began, there was an electricity in the air. In small town Alabama, this was the most important night of the week. 

     One of the seniors was walking around with a black eyeliner pencil.  

     “Who is next?”  

     “I still have to decide what number I am going to use. Go to Abby Grace,” a particularly nasty girl, let’s call her Nicole, said while swatting her away.  

     Nicole and I had been cheering together since freshman year, and though I had more experience, she always liked to act like she knew everything because she made varsity her first year cheering. She was as pale as a ghost and had nearly no eyebrows, giving her the appearance of a sickly Victorian child.  

     The senior set her brown eyes on me, eyeliner pencil at the ready.  

     “Number 10 again?” She asked, slightly smirking.  

     She knew it was going to be 10. It had been 10 since freshman year. She just liked seeing me get all flustered.  

     I nodded, and she took hold of my chin to keep me from moving too much. I stared off as the eyeliner moved up and down my cheek. I felt her make the hashtag, the sharp one, and the big circle for the zero.  

     “All done. Thanks for not changing boyfriends every week. Makes my job a lot easier.”  

She turned to Nicole, eyebrows high.  

     Nicole groaned. “Fine. I’ll go. Just…do 36.”  

     “36? Isn’t that your cousin?”  

     Nicole crossed her arms. “Yes. So?”  

     “Isn’t that a little…on the nose?” A girl said, biting back laughter.  

     “It is not like that! I am just showing support!”  

     Sure, some girls would put their brother’s jersey number on their cheek sometimes, but the tradition was to put your current beau's. Our tiny high school had been doing it for decades. In every photo of my sister cheering in 2004, she had her now-husband’s jersey number on her left cheek. It was the way things had always been, so that is the way they would continue to be. That was my hometown’s way of life.  

     It was a cute tradition. Seemingly harmless, but then again, I never had to stress about what number was going to be on my face for the entire game.  

     The senior approached Nicole, whispering Cousin lover to me as she passed.  

     While a big 3 was being carved onto her porcelain cheek, my coach materialized beside me. Add in a puff of gray smoke and she could pass for a beady-eyed Houdini.  

     “You sure have been with your boyfriend a long time.”  

     I just nodded, because I had no idea how you were supposed to respond to a question like that.  

     “Things going okay?”  

     I nodded again. I had learned a long time ago that when it came to my coach, she usually just wanted to hear herself speak.  

     “Well, you need to be careful. I started dating my husband when I was fifteen and I know there are temptations. It’s okay to kiss a little but you’ve got to know when to say no. I wouldn’t want to see you go down the wrong path. You understand?”  

     I glanced at the other girls, panicking at the thought of someone overhearing.  

     “Yes ma’am.”  

     My face was as red as a school secretary’s acrylic nails. My stomach had twisted itself into a knot. I was unsure what the boundaries were supposed to be between a coach and their student but I felt publicly giving me sex advice by the field goal crossed some sort of line.  

     She patted me on the shoulder as she walked away.  

     “Do your baskets.”  

     Basket tosses are one of the most common stunts. The first time I did one was in eighth grade, but they are a good starting stunt for groups that can’t hold girls up very long. For a successful basket toss, the flier starts by balancing their weight on their bases shoulders and places their feet on the bases wrists. The bases lock hands, providing a safe spot for their feet to rest.  

     The back spot counts off and the bases dip with their legs then toss the flier straight up, releasing each others’ hands at the highest point. The bases then keep their hands outstretched, standing close together with straight backs. When catching, it is important the bases catch with their legs, absorbing the landing. They should catch with one arm under the flier’s back and one under their upper thighs.  

     While I had done them plenty of times, they never got less scary. They still make my stomach do back handsprings today. Something about someone’s entire body weight falling down on you will always make me nervous - call me crazy. I think the part that made me the most uneasy was that, unlike most other stunts, you release the flier entirely, and they are free-falling.  

     You can’t move. Even taking one step back could cause the flier to slip through your arms and land flat on their back from ten feet in the air.  

     Years of doing them meant that when I walked up to my group, I planted my feet in the grass and told them not to move. Whatever comes, you don’t question it. You stand there and take it.  

     “Nicole, go fill in for Tessa. She’s trying to find a tampon.”  

     Nicole wined, “Are you serious? I hate basing.”  

     Everyone knew Nicole had been a flier freshman year, but her fourteen year old body was different from her seventeen year old body, and she had been grounded pretty quickly. So much of stunting depended on our bodies.  

     Everyone also knew she had been skipping lunch for three months straight to try and get back in the air. She was insistent that one day she would cheer in college, and she had to be a flier if she was going to make it on a co-ed team at a big SEC school. But much to her dismay, her and I were the same size, so she marched over to my group.  

     I reached out to take her wrists. “So we will dip together then-”  

     She cut me off, “I know how to do it.”  

     Our flier, Allison, a girl I had been throwing since seventh grade, hopped onto our locked hands. She had the hair and eyes of a Barbie doll, and when flying upwards in the air, her smile made everyone in the stands turn and watch. We took a breath, then on the back spot’s count, we dipped and tossed upwards.  

     However, Nicole did not know what she was doing, and instead of tossing upwards, she tossed slightly outwards, in my direction.  

     I could feel the change, the mistake, as soon as we dipped, and I looked up in horror.  

Allison flew up at an angle, hit her highest point, then began to fall downwards - directly over my head.  

     Step back! Step back! My head screamed, but I was paralyzed. The whole thing lasted maybe ten seconds. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late.  

120 pounds landed right on my face, on my head, knocking me down to the ground. I heard gasps from the crowd.  

     Around us, everyone fell silent.  

     “What happened?” Our coach pushed through the sea of open mouthed teenage girls.  

     Allison scrambled off of me, rubbing her back where we had collided.  

     “Something went wrong, I don’t know, but she landed right on top of Abby Grace.” Nicole said from somewhere to the side, her voice strained and high pitched.  

     “Are you okay?” Allison knelt down beside me, blue eyes swimming with uncertainty.  

I nodded, but my head suddenly felt like a bowling ball. It was too heavy for my neck, and I let it drop.  

     “Abby Grace?” My coach asked, placing her hand on my shoulder.  

     I couldn’t respond. I felt like I was underwater, and it was suddenly too difficult to make out what everyone around me was saying. It was all muffled and I didn’t have the energy to try and listen.  

     I remember her barking at another girl to help get me to the medics. Our county was too tiny and way too country to have something as fancy as a medic tent. We just had a doctor (was he even a doctor, now that I think back?) that stood on the sideline with a bag full of bandages. I remember him shining a light in my eyes and asking me if I felt like I was going to throw up. He examined my neck and back. He then ordered me to sit on the sideline with my coach and he would re-examine me at halftime.  

     According to him, I had a slight concussion. Not a big enough deal to send me to the doctor, but a big enough deal to make me sit out of cheer for a week or two.  

     In all honesty, it was a relief. I was not itching to get back under a stunt immediately after that hit. On our team, only a doctor’s note could exempt you from practices. I can remember a couple girls calling me ‘lucky’ for receiving a break.  

     But now that I think about it, my nose swelled up for a couple days after that. Was that when I broke it? On the drive back to college, I could think of story after story where I knew I was hurt, but all I did was sit out for a second before jumping back into it. I know this isn’t unusual for athletes. I can think of football players who finished the game on a broken leg or sprained wrist that had been half-hazardly taped up.  

     There is an expectation that if you are still standing, you still have something left to give.  

Though, I do not think that ‘cheerleading’ immediately makes people think of bloody noses and concussions. Usually, people think of short skirts and face-shattering smiles. They think of pom poms or school spirit.  

     In media, the cheerleader is an archetype. Parallel to the dumb jock character, the cheerleader is an airhead. She is blonde, ditsy, and preppy. She probably isn’t the kindest person in school, but she is by far the most popular. She is skinny. She is beautiful. And she is usually a slut.  

     The cheerleader is a fantasy. She is not a real girl, but rather the idea of a perfect girl who sleeps around.  

     She hops around on the sidelines with a big, dumb smile, her skirt flying up to reveal her solid color bloomers that were issued with her too-tight uniforms. She is a slut without being intelligent enough to realize what she is doing. This character is a cliche straight out of a John Hughes movie and has become a staple of teen media. You see her in just about every teen movie or tv show, she is usually one dimensional, and definitely not very empowering.  

My high school cheer coach was well aware of this stereotype, and keeping us from fulfilling it was at the top of her list of priorities.  

     I can remember being a freshman in high school at gymnastics practice, which we had one night a week. The closest gym to us was half an hour away, so I usually rode with a senior girl who had been nice enough to extend the invitation. Madi was always kind to the freshmen, which was not typical on the squad. She always had an orange tinted self tan and a lot of eye makeup. She had lived ten minutes down the road from me for my entire life.  

     “I was a freshman once. I get it. You don’t really want your mom waiting for you in the lobby.”  

     Inside the gym was a wonderland of mats and trampolines and tumbling accessories in every shape you could imagine. We had different stations and would rotate every five minutes, meaning you would practice jumps and flips on a trampoline, then practice backbends and front walkovers over ‘cheese mats,’ then move to the big mat, where you would practice tumbling with a gymnastics coach. The entire room, which was roughly the size of a basketball court, was walled with mirrors.  

     I loved getting to work with the gymnastics coaches. They were usually college aged girls or guys who had been cheering most of their lives. I loved that they were younger and could physically show me what they wanted me to do, which felt like a breath of fresh air after being ordered around by a forty-five year old woman who had never cheered a day in her life.  

Encouraged by a 6 foot tall male cheerleader, I threw all my weight backwards, relying on my hands to catch myself, and snapping my lower body over to land with my arms above my head.  

     He promptly high fived me and pointed me towards the trampolines. Since there were always too many of us, there was a line beginning to form. While we waited, we were expected to do weighted lunges and build up our leg strength.  

     I sighed, knowing I would be sore the next day.  

     “Abby Grace, come here for a second.”  

     My coach had been leaning up against a mirror halfway to the trampolines.  

     “Hey Coach. Carroll. What’s up?”  

     “That back handspring is looking really good. I want you to throw it during the pep rally tomorrow.”  

     I nodded, knowing I did not have a say. I wasn’t sure if I was free to walk away. She stared off at Madi, the senior who cared enough to let me ride with her and even pick the music every Thursday night.  

     Madi was waiting on the cheese mat, and in the meantime, she seemed to be checking herself out in the mirror. She leaned forward, rubbing at the smeared eyeliner under her eyes, then tried to fluff her ponytail. She turned to the side, examining her body from multiple angles.  

     She was the heaviest girl on the team, and although she was beautiful, I know it weighed on her. In those tight uniforms under the bright stadium lights, there was little left to the imagination.  

     “You know, I can tell if a girl is a virgin or not just by the way she walks.” 

I looked at my coach, eyes wide. She didn’t match my gaze, instead she just kept staring at Madi.  

     “Really?” I asked in a low voice. No adult had ever talked to me this way before.  

     She nodded. “Oh yeah. Don’t worry. I can tell you are a good girl. Look, the line is moving, you better go catch up.”  

     This was just the beginning of off-handed comments my cheer coach would make to me over the next four years. She would say she didn’t want us to wear a certain color lipstick because it looked suggestive. She would say that we would run if she caught us holding our boyfriend's hands in the hallway. She would make comments about the girls who dated ‘too often.’ The ones who need a new number written on their cheek every Friday night. She had an expectation for all the girls on her team, which she made clear from tryouts. She continually invited us to go to church with her and her three daughters. She encouraged us to pray together before every game. She wanted us to always be her good, Christian girls. It got to the point where my whole body would tense at the sight of her.  

     One week, during junior year, while I was still nursing my concussion, rumors began to fly through our green and gold painted halls. They started out as whispers, shared in crowded hallways just before the bell rang. Then they were texted, as people had to send the screenshots to prove that the rumors were more than just hot gossip. As soon as Coach Carroll caught wind that her cheerleaders were the topic of conversation, she called an emergency meeting.  

     She taught elementary ed, meaning every chair in her classroom came up to our knees. That didn’t stop too-tall girls from sitting down in them, though, causing their knees to brush their chests. I took an open spot on the cold tile floor.  

     We all looked at each other, wondering why on earth we were having a come to Jesus meeting in the middle of the day. It had to be serious if we were being pulled out of our classes.  

     Coach Carroll came in late, obviously flustered. She sat down at her desk, completing our circle.  

     She took a deep breath. “Okay ladies. We need to have a chat about some rumors circling.”  

I looked around the room, and while most of us had looked confused, some girls pointedly avoided eye contact.  

     Apparently, people were saying that three cheerleaders had spent the weekend at Ally Tucker’s lake house in a drunken haze. There had been boys there, also drunk, and many compromising photos and videos had been taken. Apparently private stories weren’t so private, after all. It didn’t look like anything too crazy, but in small town Alabama, this was the most interesting gossip we had had in months.  

     Coach Carroll called the three cheerleaders out by name and asked them to explain themselves.  

     “I didn’t think it was that big a deal. Everyone was drinking…and it was just one weekend.”  

     “Please don’t tell my mom about this.”  

     “I don’t know what you are talking about.”  

     Coach Carroll listened to each of them without nodding or interrupting. The rest of the squad could only watch on as muted spectators to this car crash of a confrontation.  

     “When you are one of my girls, there are rules. You cannot make a joke of this squad. How do you think your team looks, now that you girls have made fools of yourselves?”  

     “I’m sorry,” Allison, my flier, looked like she was about to start crying.  

     “Did you do anything with those boys?” Our coach asked, and seventeen pairs of eyes honed in on Allison.  

     “I just…I don’t know.”  

     “What do you mean, you don’t know?”  

     The dam burst, and tears began to fall down her face. “I mean, I woke up the next morning in bed with two of them. And my underwear was gone. I don’t…I don’t think anything happened.”  

     Nicole and I shared a look, eyes wide and childlike, filled with fear. A little bit of innocence in us had died.  

     The next day, Allison moved schools. I don’t know if she was asked to leave the team or forced. I guess I was too scared to ask. But at her new school, she won a state ring for competitive cheerleading senior year. I went to her wedding last year, and when I jokingly asked why she hadn’t invited Coach Carroll, she said that she hoped that woman rotted in hell. 

     No one ever investigated if what happened with Allison was consensual or not. In our coach's mind, it didn’t even matter. She had fallen into the 90s movie cheerleader cliche, rather than remaining pure and innocent. On a team of virgin cheerleaders, Allison had become a liability, a threat to our coach’s image.  

     I remember sitting there, my stomach swirling as if I was on a rocky fishing boat. I thought of everything that I had endured while being on her team. I thought of every little inappropriate comment I let fall off my back, every snide remark about my body or my purity. I thought about my responsibilities as a base, as one of Coach Carroll’s ‘good girls’ on the team. I was always there to be the support, holding things together. But the more that I resisted the cracks in the foundation, the harder it became to ignore them. They only seemed to spread, growing larger and larger with each overstep, each broken boundary. Like a sickness, a plague, the toxicity spread from teammate to teammate. I was one of four girls who lasted until the end of senior year, and the only one who cheered in college, much to Nicole’s dismay. Everyone else quit along the way, fed up with the way their bodies had turned into a weapon used against them.  

     As for me, I walked away from my high school team with bruises, sprained wrists, a concussion, a horrible eating disorder, and a broken nose, none of which mattered at all to my coach. She never investigated anyones’ wounds. I just kept tossing and catching, like a good base would. When I went back for a homecoming game last year, I saw her on the sidelines. She had her dark hair pulled into a tight ponytail, the same as always. She had an eyeliner pencil in her hand, carving a dark number into a young girl’s porcelain cheek. Coach Carroll murmured something to her, drowned out by the sounds of cowbells and screaming fans. I watched as the blonde cheerleader’s eyes widened and darted to the girls around her. Everyone was in their own little world, jittery with homecoming joy. Then she locked eyes with me and I knew that we were one and the same.  

Spring 2024

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