February 14, 2010
29th blog: Think cheer and dance are easy? Try one of them. I did.
By Brendan O'Hallarn
It's 75 minutes before Old Dominion University tips off a vital home game against conference rival George Mason University.
The coach sits with two captains, going over the gameplan.
"Remember, be synchronized. I want you all on the same page, focused," the coach says.
A discussion of the total game strategy is next. The coach challenges the team leaders to recite, in order, which "plays" will be run at each juncture.
Is this Blaine Taylor?
No, it's Saturday's other home "coach" Dawn Adams, who runs ODU's cheer and dance teams.
Adams, who graduated from Old Dominion in 2002 and was a dance team member herself, brings some of Blaine's passion to her job as well. In the hour before gametime, she's a perpetual motion machine, nervously making sure every routine is as good as it can be, and no surprises are coming. Then during the game, Adams studies both ends of the floor with the ferocity of any basketball coach, looking for teachable moments.
"I love it. I may not look like I love it when it's happening, but I love it," she says with a smile. "I just want to make sure cheer and dance represents ODU the best way possible."
As warmup music pulses through the Ted and the sellout crowd files in, both teams go over last minute preparations simultaneously in the tunnel concourse next to the ODU bench.
Adams asks the dance team to go through routines, one at a time, each referred to by a number.
"One-two-three-four-five-six-seventy-eighty," Adams calls out as the dance team goes through their steps. "This side, you're a quarter beat slow. Do it again."
Then out of the corner of her eye, Adams catches the cheer team spinning in an awkward pyramid. She turns suddenly. "You're not doing that one on the floor. It's not ready," Adams says. "Do the other three, instead."
You can feel tension in the air, just like I did when I was in the team room before the William and Mary game last week. Someone might point out, "but basketball team members are the real athletes."
I beg to differ. In fact, I demonstrated that quite graphically to myself before Christmas.
As Living Like a Monarch readers know, I've tried to immerse myself in ODU basketball, running the team's preseason conditioning drills, working as a team manager. Well, one thing led to another, and suddenly I found myself wearing gym shorts, preparing for one of the cheer team's twice-a-week practices.
Why did I have a feeling this wasn't going to end well for me?
Cheer team members Melanie Ayers, a senior majoring in communication, and Kellen Smith, a graduate student in physical therapy (who both graduated in December), told me cheerleading can't ever be done half-heartedly.
"I did gymnastics for 18 years, became a cheerleader and started breaking bones," said Ayers. "To me, it's the most physical sport I've ever done."
Smith has a shaved head and a nasty scar on his forehead. His persona doesn't exactly scream "Go team go." But Smith loves it. "I grew up playing a lot of sports, and this is the biggest team sport I've ever been involved with. The amount of teamwork required for the lifts and stunts we do is incredible."
It was time for the workout to begin. I stood on the end line of the gym with the team. We sprinted at about three-quarters speed, the length of the court and back, three times. We did three sets of sprints, then it was time to stretch.
As I mentioned in my blog about the ODU basketball fitness test, I am not flexible. At one point, I grabbed my ankles and thrust my butt out, in a futile attempt to get into a deep squat. I looked over at Dawn. She grinned at my fate. It didn't help that the gal right in front of me, freshman Chrissy Smith, was folding her body over effortlessly. She may or may not have a spine. Stretch finished, I got ready to help the team roll the mats out for lifts and tumbling.
Not so fast, Brendan.
"Come with me," said Yaw Baidoo, the athletic department's assistant strength and conditioning coach. "I'm going to put you through a sample workout that the male cheerleaders did this summer."
I was led over to the baseline of the side basketball court, and asked if I was ready to work. "OK, deep knee bends, fast as you can, for 45 seconds," Baidoo told me. While I grunted through the exercise, he told me that, "the guys on the cheer team wanted to be treated like the members of our varsity teams. The ones who survived are the guys you see here."
After 45 seconds, "OK down to the end of the gym and back. You have 15 seconds."
Have you ever sprinted after doing deep knee bends? It's like running with a giant elastic band around your thighs.
I finished my sprint, and Baidoo was waiting for me. "OK, pushups. Forty-five seconds."
You've gotta be kidding me, I thought to myself. After precisely 14 pushups, I was spent. I laid flat on the floor. "Come on Brendan, still 20 seconds left," I heard above me. I pushed through a couple more. "OK, down and back. Fifteen seconds."
Gasping now, I finished my sprint, and found out that 45 seconds of leg lifts awaited me. Oh joy. Then another sprint, then wall touches, where I'd jump off my toes and reach up on the wall with both hands. Finally, 45 seconds of situps, then one final down and back sprint - with only 15 seconds to finish, of course.
Laying flat on the floor after my five minutes of hell, I heard the most depressing news of the week. "The cheerleaders would do 12, 13, 14 minutes of that, take five minutes off, then do it again," Baidoo said.
I always believed it, but now I my exhaustion told me this definitively - cheerleaders are ATHLETES.
On wobbly legs, I went over to the mats, where the other cheerleaders were practicing lifts. I arrived just in time for a mishap. Chrissy Smith, the super-flexible freshman, came down hard on an already injured ankle. Her teammates had failed to catch her.
"Plank. Everybody," the team's assistant coach said.
For the next few minutes, the members of the team had to balance their weight on their forearms and feet (try this sometime) and then get up one at a time and run a sprint to the end-line and back. My shirt soaked with sweat, my body getting stiff already, I asked Dawn how much longer the team would be practicing.
"We usually go about three hours," Adams said. "We've got a lot of material to cover."
No wonder they all look so fresh while they cheer their hearts out during the games. And they had a lot to cheer about in ODU's 76-60 victory over George Mason.
Our heroes raced out to a 17-1 lead, and though Mason narrowed the margin a little bit near the end of the first half, the outcome never looked doubtful after the first five minutes.
"That's an awfully good team to beat in that fashion," Coach Taylor said. "I thought we controlled the game from start to finish ... Any time I look down on the stat sheet and see twice as many assists as turnovers, I know our kids our sharing the ball. Our plan was to pressure, push the ball and pass the ball. I thought we did a pretty good job in all respects."
Taylor also paid tribute to the home atmosphere at Saturday's game.
"There's a real nice synergy. When you're got a good team, and you're playing the kind of basketball we're playing, you've got this crowd, you've got students, the band, the cheer teams, and you're sold out, it's as good as it gets. If you really enjoy sports, if you enjoy college basketball, that's one of the reasons you start marking the calendar, 'Hey, that's what I want to do on that night.'"
The cheer and dance teams gathered postgame, after their effort out on the floor. Dance team captain Whitney Kent, a senior majoring in elementary education, said the team loves having Adams as coach. "She's extremely caring, but she's also very hard on us. She does her job very well."
The encouragement from Coach Adams helps, however, because dance is a strenuous workout, Kent said. "We definitely have to work hard in our practices to make sure we have stamina for the games. Especially for football this past season. They're a lot longer, and we have to stand the whole game."
Adams gathered her team members together in two huddles, critiquing the game performance, which she was pretty happy with. "You helped make it a really great atmosphere," she told the cheer team.
Then Adams informed the two teams right after the game that they were required to volunteer at a youth cheer event the next morning. The first shift started at 5 a.m.
It's all very glamorous.
Brendan O'Hallarn is an employee of the ODU University Relations staff.
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