Three cheers for ‘Cheer’


By Michael Rymer

As a high school student in Durham, North Carolina, Kate Torgovnick hardly seemed destined to become a sports writer. She describes herself during that time as a “rebel with bright blue streaks” in her hair who skipped all the mandatory pep rallies and only showed up at a football game once—to drive the getaway car for a friend who streaked across the field. As a reporter for the school newspaper, Torgovnick was required to contribute one sports article per semester; but she never did. “I always weaseled out of it,” she said in a recent interview.

Now 27, with an easy smile and long, naturally brown hair, Torgovnick has more than made up for her early dereliction of duty. Her first book, “Cheer!,” is an ambitiously reported account that follows three competitive college cheerleading teams through their 2006-2007 season. It is also, at bottom, an argument that cheerleaders are highly skilled athletes who deserve to be taken seriously.

Torgovnick confesses she once thought cheerleaders were “really silly.” A 2005 assignment to write a feature article on the rise of injuries in college cheerleading for “Jane” magazine, where she worked as an editor, changed her mind. The cheerleaders she contacted when she began reporting the piece talked about spending as many as 30 hours a week training for their sport and suffering concussions and other serious injuries. “It was just not what I expected. It was clear that the risk is part of the appeal,” Torgovnick said.

Her reporting led to her attendance at the National Cheerleading Association’s annual competition in Daytona Beach, Florida, where she watched the Jacks of Stephen A. Austin University—a school Torgovnick calls the “Yale of college cheerleading”—defend their national title. Her conversations with coaches and cheerleaders about the risks of the sport led to other topics, such as the prevalence of steroid use among male cheerleaders and eating disorders among the women. She spent six months reporting the article, which was published in September. By then, she had already begun thinking about writing a book on the subject, because, she said, “I had so much more to say.”

Torgovnick’s first months of researching for the book required her to perform her own feats of acrobatics. She worked during extended weekend reporting trips while maintaining her full-time position at “Jane.” Most Thursday nights, she flew to Houston, Baton Rouge or Memphis to spend the weekend with one of the three teams she followed—the SFA Jacks, the Southern University Jaguars, and the All Girls team at the University of Memphis—and arrived back in New York on Sunday night or early Monday morning and caught a few hours of sleep in her Upper East Side apartment before going to work. Torgovnick wrote the book as she reported it, during her flights and free moments on the road. “I wrote 80 percent of the book on airplanes and in hotels,” she said.

Torgovnick’s portraits do not necessarily refute commonly held assumptions about cheerleaders. Sierra Jenkins, a pillar of S.F.A.’s squad and a central character of the book, is a ditzy “uber-blond” with brown roots and skin tinted “orange-ish” from tanning. She fell from a fence she attempted to climb when she was locked out of her apartment, covered her white cheerleading shoes in hearts and purple swirls, and broke her hand on a punching bag in a friend’s backyard. Another writer bent on playing a red-state subculture for laughs, would have magnified Jenkins’ foibles, but Torgovnick merely reports them.

Torgovnick’s friend Courtney Martin, who founded the writing group Crucial Minutiae—a group of 12 young writers who meet to critique each other’s work every two weeks—recalls group members encouraging Torgovnick to poke fun of some of the cheerleaders’ mishaps and behavior, but she didn’t take the advice. “She just refuses to ridicule her subjects whether in an overt or subtle way, and that makes you really trust her,” she said.

Readers of “Cheer!” will learn that body image problems and associated eating disorders are widespread among female cheerleaders. They will also lament the sport’s inequalities. The athletic department at Southern, a historically black college, only allotted $37,000 to the cheerleading team, as compared with the S.F.A. Jacks’ budget of $110,000. Southern’s cheerleaders buy matching shorts and sports bras for their summer Spirit Camp from Wal-Mart and, lacking funds for a bus, carpool to their final competition of the season.

But “Cheer!” is, above all, a book about a grueling sport for which participants prim their faces before dawn on game days but also tear ligaments, lose toenails, and suffer black eyes. Much of the book is devoted to descriptions of actual cheerleading routines—acrobatics, spotting and tumbling. A “Cheerleader’s Dictionary,” with entries such as “Double-Down,” “Herkie,” and “Basket Toss” is appended at the back. Each of the work’s three intertwined narratives build suspense as the national championship performances approach, and Torgovnick describes each routine with an attention to detail that simulates the experience of watching them in slow motion.

Torgovnick, who plans to attend the NCA nationals again this year, claims that writing “Cheer!” made her a discerning fan. “Now I can tell the difference between what’s cool and sloppy and what’s really good cheerleading,” she said.

Spending a year with cheerleaders also had a more fundamental impact on her life. “It changed my personality,” she said. “I find myself cheering for friends a lot more, saying, ‘Yes, you can do it!’”