Cora Cashmere is a quiet 15-year-old who often gets nervous when recognized for her hard work. But put her on stage with the Lady X competitive cheer team and Cashmere transforms into a graceful and powerful athlete.
Competitive cheerleading has grown over the last decade to become an elite sport with national competitions, difficult stunts and all-star teams across the country.
Teams focus on skills such as tumbling and stunting rather than riling up a crowd or cheering on a team, typically a part of sideline cheerleading. After the wildly popular six-part documentary “Cheer” aired on Netflix earlier this year, interest in the competitive cheerleading world has grown.
Washington Extreme Cheer and Dance, owned by Tara Ernst and Carol Anderson, is the largest cheer gym in the Spokane area.
Ernst said she grew up at a cheerleading gym in Vancouver. She cheered at Washington State University and moved to Kentucky to run competitions for a cheer company. But she said she felt disconnected from the cheer athletes.
So Ernst started her own gym about 12 years ago, when she moved to Spokane. At first, the gym was a side business with about 30 students. It quickly doubled in size. Two years later, Ernst quit her day job in advertising, rented a bigger space and made coaching her full-time job.
Ernst and Anderson combined their two smaller gyms in 2018 to form Washington Extreme. The gym has 10 teams that travel to competitions across the United States, culminating with the national championship in the spring.
Lady X, an intermediate team for girls ages 12 to 18, competed in Las Vegas last weekend and placed second.
At their practice Wednesday, the team gathered around Ernst as she reviewed their routine.
“Raise your hand if you can have better standing tumbling technique,” Ernst said.
Half of the team members raised their hands. A few started giggling. At the intermediate level, less than half a point often stands between first and second places. So, halfway through competition season Ernst and the team are extra critical of the routine, picking apart each skill.
“At this point in the season, we just keep saying, ‘Leave no doubt,’ ” Ernst said. “Your overall impression that you’re leaving them with is that you absolutely deserve those points.”
In Las Vegas, the team didn’t give its all during one performance, Ernst said.
“I was like, ‘What are you saving it for?’ ” Ernst said.
Being able to take criticism is a big part of competitive cheerleading, Ernst said.
“We are very straight about it,” Ernst said. “I need to be able to get to that point. They have to trust me that I care about them and that I know what they are capable of.”
Cheerleading is scored in categories, similar to gymnastics, with each skill worth a certain amount of points and execution determining how many points the team earns. Points also are added for performance, routine composition and creativity.
The pyramid portion of the routine is often the most difficult, building one stunt on top of another in a sequence.
After about 20 minutes reviewing film, it was time for Lady X to head to the mat for some conditioning.
Lady X has girls from a variety of backgrounds, Ernst said. Quite a few came to cheerleading after a few years of gymnastics.
“When they get to a more social age, they’re looking for a team sport or they think they want to be high school cheerleaders,” Ernst said.
Most high school cheer teams in Spokane go the traditional sideline cheering route, said Amanda Fuentes, North Central High School cheer coach.
“Just in general, cheerleading is really far behind in Spokane,” Fuentes said. “In Eastern Washington and Spokane, we don’t have a lot of resources.”
Fuentes became the head cheer coach at NC five years ago and created a competition focus in the program. This was the first year the team competed at nationals in Florida.
Building a competitive high school cheer team in Spokane is difficult, Fuentes said, because few kids have any prior experience.
“I think we have two gyms in Spokane, and the kids that go to the all-star gyms are feeding into 20 or 30 plus high schools in Spokane (County),” Fuentes said.
Unlike other sports with many opportunities available to kids of all ages, most high school cheer teams have to teach the fundamentals every year.
Fuentes started hosting a cheer competition at NC a few years ago, and she said it remains the only high school competition in Eastern Washington.
The cheer community in Spokane is tight-knit. Fuentes cheered on Ernst’s first all-star team for two years and helped coach before becoming an assistant at NC.
Kendyl VanHout also cheered for Ernst before becoming a coach at Washington Extreme.
VanHout was a base, meaning she helped to lift the fliers who are on top of a stunt and are often tossed in the air. Lady X is an all-girls team, but on co-ed teams boys are usually bases.
Fliers and tumblers often have a better shot to move to the next level as a college cheerleader, because base spots on college teams are taken by boys, VanHout said.
Washington Extreme has seven boys spread out over 10 teams.
Jase Bower, 13, has been cheering for four years and is on Karma, one of the elite teams. Bower’s focus is tumbling, but on an elite team he also does other skills.
He’s also the only boy at the gym in the elite level.
“A lot of boys at my school think … that it is all pom-poms, but they don’t know what competitive (cheer) is,” Bower said. “So it’s kind of like you have to see it before you judge it.”
Bower brought one of his friends from school to a competition a few months ago, and they were so impressed they wanted to start cheering themselves.
Then that friend backed off, saying he didn’t want to get hurt, Bower said.
Cheerleaders are frequently injured with broken bones, concussions and dislocated limbs.
Faith Kifer, 12, broke her arm earlier this year doing a back handspring.
“I even heard it snap,” Kifer said.
Kifer’s biggest worry wasn’t the broken arm or even the rod she would have placed in her arm. It was missing cheer.
“I was also scared I wasn’t going to be able to do cheer,” Kifer said. “It was kind of sad, but then again, it happens.”
While injuries do happen, they aren’t as common as they used to be, Ernst said.
Perfecting jumps was the focus of a recent practice.
Nichole Savage, 16, had her short hair braided into pigtails to reveal the shaved back of her head.
She smiled at Ernst and headed across the floor to do an aerial, a flip in which the cheerleader kicks up her back leg and doesn’t touch the ground, flying through the air and landing on her feet.
“Let’s go, peanut,” Ernst yelled.
Savage has been cheering for the last eight years. The high school junior also plays three instruments in Mt. Spokane’s marching band.
“It’s just really fun and I like challenging myself physically,” Savage said. “It’s easier to be loud with these people than band people.”
Savage is a main base in most routines.
“Usually, I’m the person that has the flier’s right foot and I do a lot of twisting skills with her,” Savage said.
Savage also tumbles and recently hurt herself doing a round off back handspring back tuck. Her brain “kind of paused in midair,” Savage said. She was diagnosed with narcolepsy last year and getting treatment significantly improved her ability to cheer.
“For a long time, I was struggling with my narcolepsy because I didn’t know what I had,” Savage said.
Now, practicing and competing are easier, Savage said. After missing two competitions because of injuries, Savage said Las Vegas was extra exciting.
“It’s the best feeling in the world, and honestly, it’s unexplainable to know you did the best you could,” Savage said. “If it was a good routine, I feel amazing, like I could lift 10 cars.”
Creating a supportive, loving and challenging environment is what Ernst strives to do.
“We just take the content of their character really seriously,” Ernst said. “You have a unique opportunity to be able to change the life of a kid.”
The coaches teach integrity to the students at every level. On the youngest teams, which have kids as young as 3 years old, they describe “integrity” as “how hard you work when no one is watching,” Ernst said.
Focusing on ideas like hard work, persistence and bravery teaches the students skills they can use later in life, Ernst said.
“Some adults can’t even handle being redirected, and so these girls are in a better place to handle that kind of criticism in the workplace,” Ernst said.
Ernst is careful to hold herself and the other coaches to that high standard.
“We’re shortchanging them if we’re going to put white gloves on and say, ‘Oh, it’s all of these rainbows and butterflies,’ ” Ernst said. “The fact of the matter is that you can do better, and if you know that and I don’t hold you accountable, then it’s partially on me, too.”
Ernst’s cheerleaders seem to respond to her tough but loving approach.
“She’s strict, but she’s like our best friend,” said Ambrielle Huartson, 11, who has been cheering for five years and is one of the fliers on Lady X.
Huartson fiercely defends cheer as a sport as difficult and rewarding as any other.
“People say this isn’t a sport, but honestly I’m pretty sure it’s more of a sport than football,” Huartson said.
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