Maryland excels at competitive cheering

Lots of kids are watching the NCAA basketball tournaments. The games are big, exciting events with huge crowds, school bands and cheerleaders. Every team brings along a squad of peppy, brightly uniformed cheerleaders to get the fans fired up.

But did you know that cheering is itself a competitive sport? And while the Terps have no Final Four dreams this year, the University of Maryland’s cheer team is the defending national champion.

If you think competitive cheering is just a bunch of kids yelling at a crowd and waving their pompoms, think again. In fact, game cheerleaders and competitive cheering squads are very different. At competitive cheering meets, teams are judged in six events, including tumbling, stunts, building pyramids and a team routine.

The sport is more like group gymnastics than the cheerleading you see at a game. In fact, some people want to change the name of the sport to acrobatics and tumbling.

Believe me, whatever it’s called, it’s a tough sport. I watched a Maryland team practice recently, and I saw plenty of knee braces, ankle wraps and wrist wraps on the more than 30 team members.

First, they practiced their tumbling, with everyone flipping and twisting across the blue gymnasium mats like Olympic gymnasts. Then they practiced a routine that involves 24 athletes moving and tumbling about in perfect timing to pounding, driving music. It’s part gymnastics meet and part Broadway musical.

The members of the Maryland team come in all sizes and have different skills. The fliers — the athletes who are tossed into the air — have to be small and quick. Those on the base of the formations — the ones who catch the fliers or lift and hold up their teammates in pyramids — have to be strong, with sure hands.

Cheer team athletes need solid tumbling skills. That’s why Maryland’s head coach, Jarnell Bonds, suggests that anyone who is interested in someday joining a college competitive cheer team should get into tumbling or join an All-Star Cheerleading team. All-Star squads do not cheer for any school but compete in local, regional and national competitions in age groupsfrom 5 years old to the teen years.

Bonds should know what it takes to be successful. She is in her fifth year at Maryland and has led the Terps’ competitive cheering squad to three national titles. Maryland is ranked first again this year. Tonight the team will face the second-ranked University of Oregon squad in a big meet at the Comcast Center Pavilion.

The event starts at 7 p.m.; admission is free. So if you want to find out what all the noise is about, maybe you should check out competitive cheering.

Fred Bowen is the author of 16 sports books for kids, including his most recent basketball book, “Real Hoops.”

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