Whether to recognize cheerleading as a sport has become a heated debate in athletic and cheer circles. Cheer is no longer just an activity girls join for the uniform or for the boys’ attention. Not only is cheerleading no longer just a group of spirited girls cheering on other sports teams, but it is now a coed competition with fierce matchups and rivalries around the country.

It has evolved into one of the most competitive and invigorating sports today, requiring the same strength, talent and dedication to be a successful competitor as any other sport. Many athletes and others, though, continue to see it the way it has been stereotyped in the past.

To be a participant in the sport of competitive cheerleading requires an individual to possess both talent and athleticism. Girls and boys competing in cheer develop strength in all areas of their bodies. Athletic requirements include core strength, which is necessary when tumbling and also to keep balanced on top of pyramids and in stunts. It is important to have strong legs when tumbling, too, and when basing to help drive the flyer into the air.

And, of course, there would be no flyer if bases lacked upper body strength to throw, catch and hold other teammates. Flexibility, tumbling and endurance are all important to the success of the cheering athlete. For many of the most talented cheerleaders, from the time they could walk, they were involved in a tumbling class to begin their life of cheer. Cheerleaders build their muscles with long hours of conditioning and by maintaining a healthy diet in the same way athletes of other sports must.

The unique thing about the competitive cheerleader is that athletic ability must be coupled with the talent of dance and rhythm. Choreography is judged with the team in mind, and the unity of execution matters. It takes multiple abilities working together to be able to execute all the parts of a routine.

As do all sports, cheer takes up a large commitment of time in the lives of those who participate. Teams will practice long hours most days of the week preparing for competition. It is usually a year-round sport; school teams will go from football to basketball, then prepare for competition during and after those seasons.

As with any other sport, cheerleaders must put their whole heart into their sport in order to be the very best they are capable of being. Missing a practice is never an option. When one teammate is absent, the whole team suffers.

Cheer requires an equal amount of effort from each member to be able to function as one strong team. Each stunt group works as a whole, and it is difficult to just fill in an empty position in the group. Girls and boys who would like to cheer must be willing to put it before any other extra activities. They learn that it takes time, patience and practice to be able to achieve their goals.

Defining cheerleading as a sport has prompted a large argument between cheerleaders and other athletes. The definition of sport is given as “an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or a team compete against another or others for entertainment.”

Cheerleading fits every aspect of a sport’s definition — in some ways better than other sports. Cheerleaders need strength because of the amount of physical exertion the sport requires. Skill is an understatement when speaking of the talent of cheerleaders. At a competition, a team can be competing with anywhere from 10 to 75 teams at a single competition, whereas most other sports only compete against one team at a time.

Finally, a cheer competition is definitely one of the most entertaining sporting events to be at. It is one of those activities most people can watch for hours and never lose interest because all teams are different. Even after cheering for years, the boys and girls who cheer themselves continue to be excited to watch a competition and see the exhilarating routines performed.

Cheer is no less a sport than baseball, football or basketball; it lacks nothing to not be considered as so. I am a cheerleader; I am an athlete.

Madison Neal is a cheerleader at Zachary High School.