But to distinguish themselves from cheerleaders, acro athletes compete in volleyball-style shorts, rather than skirts, and wear shirts with numbers on the back.
The squad members at West Virginia’s Fairmont State go one step further, competing with eye-black smeared on their cheekbones. And at California’s Azusa Pacific, acro athletes wear weightlifting-style gloves. The Terps, however, make no visual apology for their cheerleading heritage, sporting bows in their hair.
“Every team has their own thing,” says senior Lauren Shannon, an all-American from Silver Spring. “A lot of teams are trying to move away from cheerleading, but we are what we are. We are still cheerleaders, and we will always wear hair bows!”
That’s hardly the only divide in the sport, which has worked hard the last two years to prove it deserves NCAA recognition, adding rigor to its competition format and adopting an objective, gymnastics-based scoring system.
There are now two sports derived from cheerleading — acrobatics and tumbling (the branch Maryland started) and stunt (backed by USA Cheer) — seeking the NCAA’s endorsement. It’s unclear whether either will succeed. But should cheerleading by any name blossom into a major college sport, Maryland, a onetime pioneer, will watch from the sidelines.
In Haglund’s view, that’s not because competitive cheer failed. Rather, it’s because Maryland’s insolvent athletics department simply can’t fund 27 varsity teams. Debbie Yow, Maryland’s athletic director when competitive cheer was added and now the athletic director at North Carolina State, declined to comment, saying it would be inappropriate given that she has left the university.
In addition to competitive cheer, Maryland has targeted seven other teams for elimination: all three men’s track teams, men’s swimming and diving, women’s swimming and diving, men’s tennis and women’s water polo.
Like the others, acro was told by the Terps’ current athletic director, Kevin Anderson, that it could save itself by raising eight years of operating costs by June 30. That’s $5.28 million — “just an astronomical number,” said Chiriaco, whose athletes have thrown themselves into the task nonetheless.
So far, they have raised $5,221 — or 0.1 percent of the goal. But they’re still trying, determined to stay together next season even if it’s as a dues-paying club.
“We have built this family, and it’s disappointing to see that it’s going to end,” said Shannon, 22. “But we can look back and say we did accomplish something and we did make a statement for women’s sports. We did something great.”