TAMPA — Cheerleaders once served mainly to whip up enthusiasm for the athletes on the field.
Now, many are elite athletes in their own right, thrilling crowds at cheer competitions with moves that combine dance, gymnastics, stunts, conditioning, and still the traditional pep rally cheering — all wrapped into a 2 1/2 minute routine scored by a panel of judges.
“If there is anyone who questions whether or not competitive cheer is a sport or if they are real athletes, just go to one competition or even one practice and that opinion will be put to rest,” said Mark Consuelos, a 44-year-old graduate of Bloomingdale High School, famous for his starring role in more than 100 episodes of “All My Children.”
Or just go see Consuelos’ new documentary, “American Cheerleader,” 2:45 p.m. Saturday at American Stage theater during St. Petersburg’s Sunscreen Film Festival.
Produced by Consuelos and his wife Kelly Ripa, star of “Live with Kelly and Michael,” follows two competitive cheerleading teams vying for the title at a tournament held each year in Orlando. The competition is in the Small Varisty II division of the Universal Cheerleaders Association National High School Cheerleading Championship.
The two teams of 12 girls each are from New Jersey’s Burlington Township High School and Southwestern High School in Somerset, Kentucky.
Burlington was the defending champion and had to deal with the pressures of staying on top.
Southwestern was among the best teams in the nation at the 2012 national tournament but fell just short of the title, quite literally: A fall by one teammate cost them the title on the judges’ scorecards.
For Burlington, it was about cementing the legacy of a dominant team.
For Southwestern, it was about redemption and one last chance for seniors to take home the winners’ coveted white jackets.
Both teams also had to deal with illnesses, injury and lingering memories of past failures.
“What these competitors had to overcome mentally as well as physically was amazing,” Consuelos said. “But it all comes down to those 2 1/2 minutes.”
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All season long, teams work to perfect their concentrated routine.
In tournaments, teams are broken into divisions according to the number of members and the school enrollment.
The smallest teams have five to seven competitors, the largest as many as 36.
Each team performs a routine that can encompass dance, a pyramid, flips and other forms of tumbling, tossing teammates into the air and traditional cheering.
Some squads are so skilled they can toss a teammate from the floor onto the top of a pyramid without a wobble.
The routine is continuous. Competitors must transition seamlessly stopping even to catch a breath.
A panel of judges provides point totals based on difficulty of the routine and execution.
“You have to be agile enough to flip or tumble,” Consuelos said.
“You have to be strong enough to lift another person, throw another person or balance yourself on one leg on top of a pyramid. Like in every team sport, each teammate has a role and a skill. It takes a well-rounded team to win.”
The pressure on each teammate to avoid mistakes is unlike any other sport, said Ernie Diez, cheer director of Stars Athletics, a 17,000-square-foot complex in Tampa that trains cheerleaders and fields teams in competitions across Florida.
“I think what draws a person to the sport is that feeling that there is no second chance,” Diez said.
Even gymnastics, an Olympic sport often compared with cheerleading, provides athletes more leeway.
A gymnast, for example, can overcome a poor floor exercise score with a great vault or balance beam score.
“You cannot call a timeout in cheerleading. There is no second quarter,” Diez said. “That’s the beauty of the sport. You have to be perfect when it counts. Anything other than perfection may not be enough to win. Sometimes, not even perfection is enough. Another team’s perfection could be better.”
Kellie Doucette, director of athletics for the Florida High School Athletic Association and a former competitive cheerleader, said it bothers her when she hears someone say a sideline cheerleader is not an athlete, but she can handle the criticism. When someone says that about a competitive cheerleader, it sends Doucette over the edge.
“If you think you can go out there and perform at a high level for over two minutes, think again,” she said.
Children can get started in cheerleading as young as 4, even at schools such as Stars Athletics.
“It has become no different than any sport,” Consuelos said. “Kids pick competitive cheer at an early age and focus on it just as some do for football or soccer. And don’t let anyone fool you; it is just as hard.”
Competitive cheerleading hasn’t replaced traditional cheering, nor do those who participate in one have to take part in the other.
Sideline cheerleading is as popular as ever, said Sheila Noone, vice president of public relations of Varsity, a national cheerleading organization that produces the tournament in Orlando.
But competitive cheerleading is among the nation’s fastest growing sports, Noone said.
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At the first national high school tournament for competitive cheer, held in 1980, 20 schools competed.
At the most recent event in February 2015, there were 645 teams, 59 of them international representing 14 different countries.
Florida is among the most popular states for high school competitive cheerleading, said Doucette with the Florida High School Athletic Association.
Since Florida first recognized competitive cheerleading as an official high school sport in 2008, the number of teams has grown from 100 to 245.
There are more than 30 in the Tampa Bay area. Strawberry Crest High School in Plant City placed fifth in the national tournament in 2014.
Competitive cheerleading dates to the 1960s and competitions were televised as early as 1978 when a collegiate tournament was featured on CBS.
By the 1980s, according to Varsity’s website, the number of tournaments increased around the country and in the 1990s, centers geared specifically toward cheerleading training were opening.
Today, competitive cheerleading tournaments are part of ESPN’s networks’ regular programming.
“American Cheerleader” is the third competitive cheerleading project produced by Consuelos and Rippa.
They had an hour-long reality show on CMT in 2012 called “Cheer” and currently have a YouTube show “Cheerleaders New Jersey” that follows a team from the Garden State.
When Consuelos’ wife first suggested producing stories about competitive cheerleading, he admits he had his doubts.
“She just laughed at me and said I’d see how real a sport it is” Consuelos said. “She was right.”
They made the documentary to tell a compelling story and showcase the difficulty of competitive cheerleading.
A member of Burlington’s team had pneumonia but still put in a flawless performance during the 2013 regional tournament. She wound up in a hospital for weeks afterward.
Another member of the team lost her mother just a few days before the 2012 national tournament and still performed in the finals.
A cheerleader from Southwestern hurts her shoulder so badly she can barely raise her arm, yet in each competition in 2013 she does all that is required of her and with a smile on her face.
Southwestern’s coach put her team first even as she dealt with a divorce.
“They are both passionate and want it so badly,” Consuelos said. “They will do whatever they can to win.”