Have you watched Netflix’s new docuseries “Cheer” yet? If you haven’t, please stop reading this, block off your next six hours to binge watch, then come back and finish reading. (Spoilers ahead.)
If you’ve already done yourself the favor of checking out “Cheer,” you know that the documentary special follows the Navarro Junior College Cheerleading team and their journey to the NCA National Collegiate Cheerleading Championship in Daytona, FL. The series focuses on the team’s athleticism and discipline, with a special spotlight on the hefty expectations of head coach and queen of collegiate cheerleading, Monica Aldama.
The brutality of the sport is also highlighted. If you never considered cheerleading a contact sport before, you probably should now. Cheerleading has progressed significantly since its days of leading chants on the sidelines of football and basketball games. The top cheerleading teams are filled with elite athletes performing complex routines consisting of jumps, tumbling, and stunts. As cheerleading has evolved, the risk of injuries has also increased significantly.
Here we delve into some of the specific injuries we saw during the show, and why we think these athletes are some of the toughest we’ve ever seen.
Ashlee Sawai (flyer/top), Mackenzie Sherburn (flyer/top), Allie Ross (flyer/top)
When we’re first introduced to “Cheer,” the team is working out the kinks to their highly intricate and risky pyramid. We literally watch every option for the top girl part of the pyramid get kneed, kicked, or dropped on their head. Head Athletic Trainer for the Navarro College Cheerleading team, Cameron Hieb, ATC, steps in to evaluate each of the girls for a concussion.
The rate of concussion injuries in cheerleading continues to grow rapidly. Behind football, concussions in cheerleading occur more frequently than other contact sports including lacrosse and hockey(1). The risk of sustaining a cheerleading-related concussion has increased over 200% in the past 10 years. Symptoms of a concussion do NOT have to include loss of consciousness and can vary in type and severity. Ashlee mentions that she ran to the bathroom and threw up immediate after her head got hit. Nausea and vomiting are common symptoms of a concussion. Headaches, blurred vision, amnesia, and dizziness are just a few of the additional signs to be wary of after head contact.
Unfortunately for Monica, and especially for these athletes, there is no rushing an athlete’s return to sport following a concussion. The dangerous effects of returning too quickly and/or sustaining multiple head injuries have been demonstrated time and time again. Luckily for the team, the girls were so well-conditioned that then it was time to start practicing again, they didn’t miss a beat.
Sherbs (again ☹)
Speaking of the “Sherbs” and that crazy pyramid—upon clearance from her concussion, Mackenzie returned to her position at the top (literally and figuratively). Sherbs was quite possibly the most imperative member on the team, making her season-ending injury all the more devastating. During one practice while working on that pesky pyramid, Sherbs gets launched in the air—the problem is, no one is there to catch her. (Quick note: As a former cheerleader myself, this is terrifying. It also totally happens, even with the best, safest practices.)
Later Monica mentions that Sherbs dislocated her elbow and is officially done for the season. Dislocations, along with fractures, account for 10-16% of all cheerleading related injuries(2). An elbow dislocation is one of the more serious orthopedic injuries that this show covers. The severity of the injury is due to the increased risk of affecting one of the many neurovascular structures that run along the elbow joint. Sherbs explained that when she realized no one was there to catch her, she put her arms out to catch herself, even though she knew it was a bad idea. By breaking her fall with her hand, her ulna and radius (the forearm bones) were forced out of place along her humerus (the arm bone). Depending on whether there are any injuries to the surrounding structures, elbow dislocations can take upwards of six weeks to recover from. And while we were bummed to see that Sherbs wouldn’t be able to repeat as a National Champion, we are all just grateful her injury wasn’t even worse, all things considered.
Will Hernandez (stunter)
Now, I personally feel super conflicted about Will on the show. He was clearly a proficient and talented stunter (for further proof, check out his Instagram account). However, his placement on the Nationals mat also displaced fan-favorite Jerry Harris. Unfortunately for Will, he was pulled from the lineup after “getting an x-ray on his arm.”
Without further explanation, we can only speculate. Earlier in the season, Hieb mentioned a laundry list of the team’s shoulder injuries, including SLAP tears and rotator cuff tears. An injury like one of those would likely occur to an athlete like Will when trying to save a stunt. When a stunt falls, there are a lot of repercussions—a score deduction, potential injury to the flyer, public shaming from Monica, etc. Therefore, the guys on the bottom are definitely incentivized to keep their flyer in the air, requiring them to stretch their upper bodies (especially the shoulder joint) to their end range of motion while producing a maximal contraction of the surrounding muscles in order to stay balanced. This tension force can pull, tear, or shear a muscle tendon—like the biceps tendon in the case of a SLAP tear, or one of the rotator cuff tendons in the case of an RC tear. Many times, an acute injury like this can require surgery with up to three months of rehabilitation afterwards. And while we were so excited to see the MVP of mat talk, Jerry, fulfill his cheer dreams of competing at college nationals, we also give mad props to Will for managing his shoulder injury for as long as he did.
Gabi Butler (flyer/tumbler)
Gabi’s claim to fame was that she was one of the first “cheer-lebrities” (that is, she became a cheerleading social media influencer before it was cool to be an influencer). One of the most talented athletes on the team, she was involved with every aspect of the routine. She also was filmed quite a bit receiving treatment on her ankle. At one point, Hieb diagnoses her with a posterior bone bruise.
Likely, he was referring to a posterior talar bone contusion. This type of injury occurs when the tibia (shin bone) makes contact with the talus (ankle bone) in a really aggressive fashion, like during an ankle sprain. Considering sprains are by far the sport’s most common injury (accounting for ~ 53% of overall injuries(3)), this type of bone bruising injury is likely also common amongst cheerleading athletes. For someone like Gabi who is one of the primary tumblers on the team, it makes sense that she would be at an increased risk for this type of injury. The constant pounding from twisting and landing on a very rigid floor will create a lot of compressive and rotational force on that ankle. Normally a talar bone contusion can take 4-6 weeks to recover from. Luckily for Monica and the NC team, Gabi was able to tough it out for Daytona thanks to an awesome sports medicine team.
We want to acknowledge Hieb and assistant athletic trainer, Keke Hawkins, ATC for their incredible efforts to keep the athletes as safe and healthy as possible throughout the season. Thank you to Netflix for giving us the docuseries we never knew we needed. And best of luck to the Navarro Cheer team for a safe and championship-winning 2020 season!
If you find that channeling your inner Gabi goes awry and you’re in need of some help, don’t forget you can schedule at any of our offices without needing a prescription from a doctor. #CHEER