Growing Pains

Dusty – Christina Graham
Sasha Olander

I’m 6 feet in the air, not looking down, a smile plastered on my face. I hear the cheer music blasting clashing with my coach screaming, “You’re hitting!!! Stay up!” Suddenly, I feel my foot start to turn and my body becomes unstable. And then, the worst thing imaginable happens, I fall. I fall quickly yet it feels like it takes a million years. I land face first, the tears flow and I feel the pain internally and externally. How did I get to such a low point? Throughout my 8 year long cheer career, I have been constantly asking myself this exact question. 

As a kid, I was extremely small in all ways. I was healthy and ate like a teenage boy at the age of 5, but I was still very scrawny. This is why I was a flyer on my cheerleading team. The flyer is the smallest girl that gets held up in the air by her bases and backspots. Flying was my passion, tumbling was cool and all but there was nothing better than flying. After two years at Energy Kidz, my mom and I made the decision that I wanted something bigger. Obviously winning isn’t everything but I wanted something more competitive. Energy Kidz was certainly fun, but when it came to competitions, we had little to no chance of winning against big-name gyms. My mom researched other competitive cheer teams in the area and we eventually found the perfect fit for me, Cheer Extreme Allstars. 

After I stopped cheering at Energy Kidz, I joined the competitive gymnastics team. I ended up deciding against trying out at Cheer Extreme and just wanted to stick with gymnastics. However, there was a place in my heart that knew how badly I would miss cheerleading. Luckily, it wasn’t two late and I got to go to makeup tryouts for Cheer Extreme. Then, I was placed on a Youth 2 team where I was center flyer. I immediately loved everything about Cheer Extreme, it was more competitive and challenging than Energy Kidz. It began to be too much to have gymnastics meets and practices on top of cheer competitions and practices so I eventually quit gymnastics. 

Since 2015, I have gone to Cheer Extreme. However, I’ve battled myself many times over my decision to still continue doing the sport I once loved more than anything. My first two years at Cheer Extreme were great, I was flying center and my tumbling was progressing faster than ever. My third year is what sparked my hatred for my body. I was on a Junior level 4 team and I started off the season as center flyer as I had been previously. I felt like I was on top of the world. However, I was probably 10 or 11 at this point and I was growing rapidly. During the summer, my coach called my mom and said I wouldn’t be flying in the main stunt. My mom called me and broke the news. I remember that moment and those feelings like it all happened just yesterday. I ran to the bathroom and bawled and bawled until I had no tears left. It was the worst feeling ever to know that my size was holding me back when I was really an amazing flyer. Throughout that year, I pushed myself to work extra hard and go to flying classes and work on my skills.

The next season was the worst for me, I was on three teams, flying on one and learning how to backspot on the other two. Three teams is a lot for anyone, but as a 12 year old trying to navigate between school and 6 practices a week, it was overwhelming to say the least. Any trace of my social life was decimated that year. In March of 2020, we had one of our last competitions in Orlando. While we were there, we heard all sorts of things about a new virus called COVID-19, and the competition was cut short. I enjoyed it though because I got to spend the whole day at disney, the last day before Disney closed for months. When I returned home, I heard we had virtual school for two weeks. I was shocked as I had never gone through anything like that before. For months, I couldn’t go to cheer, I couldn’t do the thing I loved the most and it destroyed me. I also knew I was becoming taller and taller and the second I stepped foot back into the gym, I would be “grounded” (a term for flyers who get too big and have to learn how to base). I did all that I could to prevent that and at the time I didn’t realize how detrimental that was to my well being. I was 12 years old working out for hours each day so that I could have the “right” body type. I hated myself. Why did I have to be so much bigger than all the other girls? I lived with the hatred of myself for two years. 

Once we were allowed back in the gym, I was grounded as expected but my body issues didn’t end there. Being grounded felt like my wings were being clipped. My love of flying was ripped away from me because of how tall I was and how much I weighed. After this point, my body issues just increased. When I was 13, I started tracking my calories. I would limit myself to 1200 calories a day. That is 800 less calories than the average woman is supposed to consume each day. In total, I was missing out on 5,600 calories a week. However, I didn’t care. I didn’t mind the constant pang of hunger in my stomach, I didn’t care about eating, I only cared about how I looked in my uniform. If I went over my calorie limit, I would freak out. I didn’t realize how much I was destroying myself. 

Recently, I have become much better about feeling confident with myself and understanding that food is fuel. However, as long as I do allstar cheer, body image issues will still exist due to the stigma around body type in all star cheer. Not being a flyer anymore definitely helps with my confidence. I no longer have bases telling me I’m “too heavy” or asking what I ate that day because I felt “heavier” than usual. As much as I miss flying, I’m glad that part of my life is over and I make sure to never say anything like that to my flyers. As much as I love cheer, I fear the only way to permanently fix my body image is to quit. Who knows when I will finally be able to close this long chapter of my life and move on to the next thing? But for now, I will continue my usual routine including the sport of all star cheer.