We've Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Cheerleading Team

We've Got Spirit: The Life and Times of America's Greatest Cheerleading Team

by James T. McElroy


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What In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle did for girls high school basketball, We've Got Spirit does for cheerleading.

They tear ligaments, blacken eyes, and crash headfirst into hard floors. They spend hours at practice, drawing both admiration and ridicule for their efforts. They've won nine national championships, and endured heartbreaking losses. And they do it--almost always--with a smile. They are the Greenup County High cheerleading team, known to ESPN viewers as fierce athletic competitors and in northeastern Kentucky as full-fledged celebrities. Now, an award-winning journalist, James McElroy, gives us an insider's look at a squad of unlikely teenage heroines who are taking center court and raising a cheer for themselves.

"It's easy to make some kind of odious joke about cheerleaders, but don't. It's more fun to try, believe it or not, to understand them. And James T. McElroy does just that...in his entertaining and well-reported book."-- Esquire

"Looks beyond the pompoms to the personal stories and the rural towns that offer girls no other path to success."-- Marie Claire

"These are not the flirty sideline stereotypes urging the boys on to victory. These girls are more apt to break bones than hearts... McElroy portrays cheering at Greenup as a largely positive experience that allows the girls to define themselves out of potentially limited social roles, even if they have to bend over backwards to do so."-- Publishers Weekly

Like such bestsellers as Little Girls in Pretty Boxes or In These Girls, Hope is a Muscle, We've Got Spirit "takes a hard look at the personal struggles of [an] intense, driven group of teenage girls and their coaches" (New York Post)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780425173565
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/01/2000
Pages: 1
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 8.26(h) x 0.98(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Cheer to Win

Shawnda Bates sprints down the parking lot outside Disney/MGM Studios. With arms raised, her palms scraping the cloudy Orlando sky, Shawnda leaps headlong into the air. She shoves off the pavement with her hands and lands on her feet, facing in the opposite direction. Then she hurls herself backward, uses her hands to bounce off the blacktop, flips over, springs off her feet, tucks her knees into her chest while spinning upside down in the air, and finishes with a clack of sneakers against blacktop.

Hands on hips, deeply breathing the morning air, Shawnda, a lanky seventeen-year-old high school senior, walks back across the parking lot to the end of the line of Greenup County High School cheerleaders. There she stands, slightly hunched, her head cocked forward, her hands still on her hips, her knees locked, her feet shoulder width apart, and watches her teammates whip their bodies across the asphalt.

Shawnda's tall for a cheerleader, about five feet, nine inches. With her long arms and broad shoulders, she stands out from the other girls with their compact, Kerri Strug-like bodies. She's got brown, shoulder-length hair and, like the other Greenup County girls, she holds it up and out of her face with a white bow clip. Her face is covered with a heavy cream foundation, accented by blush, bright red lipstick, eyeliner, and a thick coat of mascara. Over a white nylon turtleneck, Shawnda wears a yellow halter top with the letters "GCHS" inscribed in green. To complete the outfit, she has on white jogging shorts, white socks, and white tennis shoes. Her tennis shoes are not sufficiently white, however, for Greenup's upcoming competitiom behind his camera, and shifts them about till they're posed just right.

He never has to say, "Smile!" The cheerleaders have that taken care of. They can smile sweetly and naturally whenever the need arises.

Before the photographer can snap the team picture, however, the cheerleaders from Boyd County, Kentucky, walk by. At once, the Greenup girls stop smiling, turn, and look.

Greenup County sprawls across the northeastern corner of Kentucky, amid the rolling Appalachian Mountains, beside the muddy Ohio River. To the north sits Portsmouth, Ohio. To the east, Ironton, Ohio, and Huntington, West Virginia. And to the south, Boyd County, Kentucky.

Boyd is Greenup's rival in everything: football, basketball, steel production, and cheerleading. Boyd County High School won last year's national cheerleading championship, while Greenup settled for third.

The Boyd cheerleaders have noticed the Greenup cheerleaders now, and they watch the Greenup team pose for their photograph. Afterward, the Greenup and Boyd girls mingle. They smile and chitchat. Then they hug good-bye and wish one another good luck in the upcoming preliminary round.

Once the Boyd girls move on, the Greenup cheerleaders go back to their worrying and pacing, worrying and stretching, worrying and hair-fiddling. The team's three male assistant coaches worry along with them. Randy Peffer, a trim, dark-haired, slightly balding math teacher at Greenup High -- and a former cheerleader from the University of Kentucky -- walks back and forth, looking down at the ground, his hands clasped behind his back. Tom Pack, Greenup's short, stocky, dark-complected gymnastics expert, works with the girl with the weakest back tuck, Amanda Pennington, a senior.

Then there's Hank Light, Greenup's tall, muscular choreographer. He stands, knees locked, arms folded, and asks five girls to perform a particular stunt again and again. Light began working with Greenup cheerleading when he was nineteen. Now, at twenty-six years old, he's still the youngest of the Greenup coaches, but has more coaching experience than all but head coach Candy Berry.

Coach Berry, looser than her assistants, leans back on a bench and needles her girls for "stressing" so much.

"Look at Aubrey," she says, pointing out Aubrey Warnock, a sophomore with short blond hair and wide shoulders. "She's stressing." Berry pauses. "I've had two of her aunts in the program."

Short, stout, and in her mid-forties, with close-cropped hair dyed black, Berry talks -- on the few occasions when she does talk -- in loud, choppy sentences, much like the chants she teaches her cheerleaders to perform.

I sit down beside Berry and ask her how many teams she's coached to a national championship during her twenty years with Greenup High cheerleading. "Eight," she says immediately, then begins to laugh. "Did I just tell you eight?" she says. "I just told him we've won eight championships," she bellows at Coach Peffer. "That's so funny." Berry lowers her voice. "We've won seven national championships. We'll have won eight after [the championship finals] tomorrow night."

An amazing motivator, Berry is feared and loved and worshiped, like a god. Her girls will do anything for her, and they seem to gain strength and resolve by being near her, following her commands. As Berry has shown year after year, she's the queen of a cheerleading dynasty who can take almost any group of girls and mold them i nto national champions. She's a female incarnation of Vince Lombardi.

Just a month after Greenup's disappointing third-place finish at the 1996 nationals came the Kentucky state cheerleading championships. Ten seconds into the team's performance, Kristi Click, then a Greenup senior, was finishing a tumbling run when she tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee and crumpled to the floor. Grimacing, Kristi started to get up, but the ruined knee couldn't support the weight. Kristi then tried to crawl off the court. She wanted to get out of the way of her teammates, and she didn't want the judges to see her cry.

Berry jumped up from her courtside seat, ran to Kristi, and, like a medic in a war movie, dragged the girl off the court. At the same time, Berry hollered at Charon Hamilton, another senior on the Greenup varsity, to abandon her usual duties as a tumbler and dancer, and play Kristi's role as a base during the stunts, lifting and throwing Greenup's flyers into the air. Shawnda Bates, also a base, whispered to Charon where to go, what to do, and how to do it, and the Greenup team somehow finished the routine without missing a beat. Afterward, the packed Lexington crowd gave them a standing ovation.

The judges took pity on the Greenup squad and decided not to judge them on the injury-marred performance. Instead, they gave the Greenup cheerleaders five minutes to catch their breath and figure out how to redo the routine without Kristi. In those five minutes, Berry told the team what to change, and how. She praised Charon for stepping in and performing so well -- then told her to get out there and do it again. Greenup took second place at the '96 Kentucky state championships, but, a s at the '96 nationals, Boyd County again came out on top.

Berry's got everything a good male coach has, but as a woman, she's got something more. She shows tenderness toward her athletes. She compliments them on their hair, on their jewelry. She shows absolute confidence in their abilities. And she never, ever gives up on them. She heaps praise on them when they work hard and make progress. She insists that they can do anything, especially the tumbling runs and stunts that give them trouble. She tells them to ditch their "loser" boyfriends if those boys don't treat her girls right. She cracks the whip when the girls goof off. Her love and support are unconditional. And the Greenup cheerleaders feel it.

After cheering for Greenup County's Russell High School in the late 1960s, Berry learned she was pregnant and quit cheerleading to get married. Berry's boy was born in 1970, and after she graduated from high school that same year, Berry became a full-time mom at eighteen.

In 1973, her former cheerleading coach at Russell High asked Berry if she'd like to return as an assistant coach. And after a couple of years at Russell, she got the job coaching the team at Greenup High. The sort of cheerleading Berry did in high school was much less athletic than what she coaches now. Cheerleading in the sixties consisted of pom-poms, cutesy chants, big smiles, and revealing uniforms. There were no gymnastic tumbling runs. No complicated stunting. Never any injuries. About the most athletic thing sixties cheerleaders ever did was a cartwheel followed by the splits.

Since then, Berry has become an expert on back tucks, whip-backs, full-twist flips, and X-outs. Learning from other high school teams at first, then small-time college teams, and now Division I college teams, Berry has devoured all there is to know about cheerleading: the stunts, the chants, the gymnastics, and the dances. And she passes on what she learns. Every year, high school cheerleading teams throughout the country learn a new cheerleading move -- a new flip, a new tumbling run, a more complicated stunt -- by watching the Greenup team perform at nationals.

A couple of years ago, Berry taught her girls partner stunts, a more difficult and precarious way to hold girls aloft and display them to the crowd. During a partner stunt, a squad divides into three or more groups of four (three bases and a flyer). Each group of bases lifts their flyer up into the air. The flyers have no one to hold on to for balance. They must simply stand with one foot upon the hands of their three teammates, and stiffen their bodies to keep from wobbling to the side and crashing to the ground.

Group mounts have been around much longer. During a group mount, the team's bases lift up three or more flyers side by side, and the flyers hold on to one another as they rise and hold their poses, making a fall much less likely. Berry learned of partner stunts when top college programs began using them ten years ago. Other high school coaches had never thought of such a thing. But then Berry began putting partner stunts into Greenup County's routines, and the other coaches had to follow suit to keep their teams competitive.

Ever since she led Greenup County High School to its first four national cheerleading championships, in 1981, '82, '83, and '84, Berry has set the example that the rest of the cheerleading world follows. Every competitive cheerleading coach in the country teaches her girls to emulate the cheerleaders from Greenup County, Kentucky. Like Lombardi, she's become legendary.

Berry has never received much pay for the work she does for Greenup cheerleading. In fact, for the past twelve years, she's received no pay at all. And she has turned down numerous offers, complete with extensive compensation packages, to coach college programs throughout Kentucky and the United States. She does not seek out recognition -- in the form of money, awards, or anything else -- nor does she enjoy recognition when it is thrust upon her. Berry simply follows her nose, teaching fragile Greenup girls to be tough Greenup women by winning cheerleading championships year after year.

Shawnda Bates is watching her friend and teammate Kasey Dillow lose her mind. Moments ago, Kasey caught her reflection in a turned-off television monitor beside the warm-up tent. Now, she's running her hands through her thick brown hair. But it's tangled.

Frantic, Kasey asks Berry for the Greenup team hairbrush, then kneels down on the asphalt, nervously rubbing her hands together while Shawnda tries to brush her hair.

When Shawnda's done, Kasey stands up, takes the brush, and starts picking at her head.

"Does it look terrible?"

"No, no, it's fine," says Shawnda, using her fingernail to scrape some dried skin off Kasey's upper lip. "It's just fine."

Amanda Pennington takes a break from her back tuck practice to announce that she's too fat for her skirt. That's why she's having trouble with her standing back tuck.

"Gosh, Amanda," Shawnda says, "I wish I was as fat as you."

Sophomore Jessica Newell sits quietly on the blacktop. For the past day and a half, Jessica has had a bad stomach virus and has been unable to keep any food down. She's vomited four times in thirty-six hours.

"The maids came to the hotel and cleaned the room three times with disinfectant," says Berry. The Greenup coaches don't know what Jessica will be able to do today without any calories to burn. They will wait and see how she holds up when the girls run through their routine inside the warm-up tent.

Taking Jessica out of the competition and making do without her is never discussed.

The girls clump together now, near the entrance to the warm-up tent. It's almost their turn to go inside. Four teams are allowed in the tent at once, to use one mat each for exactly four minutes, enough time to run through a routine, then focus on trouble spots.

It's dark, humid, and loud in the tent. As the girls crowd inside, an amplified voice announces through the din of pounding dance music and shrieking cheerleaders, "Greenup County. Mat Two. You have four minutes." The Greenup girls don't respond at first. Lulled by the languid Orlando morning, they blink and stand on their heels.

"Come on, girls! C'mon now!" Berry hollers, herding the girls to their mat. "Get going! C'mon!"

The girls hustle over as Peffer cues a tape in the Greenup team boom box. When the girls settle into position, Peffer hits Play and a generic, mind-numbing dance song bleats out of the speakers.

The recently vomiting Jessica Newell seems okay during her tumbling run.

Then all nineteen members of the Greenup squad do a standing back tuck simultaneously. Even Amanda Pennington hits it.

Cheerleaders from other teams gasp. Berry requires every member of her varsity to learn to do a standing back tuck, an extremely difficult gymnastic move. You start from a standing position, then jump, tuck your knees into your chest, flip over backward, and land on your feet. Many competitive teams have a few girls who can do a standing. But very few have a squad of Greenup's size in which every girl can hit it.

The most difficult move of the routine comes next. Shawnda and two teammates stand side by side and face forward. They jump backward, shove off the mat with their hands, flip over, land on their feet, jump backward, shove off with their hands, flip over, land on their feet, jump, shove, flip once more, then jump backward, really high, and flip over, while spinning 360 degrees. Then they land on their feet, facing forward.

The onlookers gape.

Peffer shuts off the music now, and the Greenup chants begin. On the hands of their bases, four flyers rise up into the air. Each flyer balances on her teammates' hands with one foot and holds her other foot above her head, all the while chanting, "G! C! H! S! GREENUP! IS! THE! BEST!"

The Greenup girls have prepared for this all year. In practice, they would lie on their backs and, with knees locked, lift their legs about six inches off the ground, straining their stomach muscles. Then, while keeping their legs up, they hollered the Greenup chants as loudly as possible.

Shawnda is one of the bases holding up Aubrey Warnock, who loses hold of her foot and doesn't pull it over her head.

Last comes the dance. The girls broaden their smiles as they stomp to the throbbing techno-funk. At one point, the girls stand, spread their legs, slowly move their hands down over their breasts to their crotches to their thighs, then gyrate their hips backward and thrust forward.

Jessica Newell collapses at the end of the routine, and the amplified voice announces, "Two minutes. Two minutes remaining."

As the Greenup coaches gather around her, Jessica lies on her back with her hands over her face. She is very pale. Pack coaxes her off the mat with a water bottle and an ice pack.

"One minute, thirty seconds. One minute, thirty seconds."

Berry barks orders at Shawnda, who rounds up Aubrey and the other bases. They lift Aubrey up over their heads, where Aubrey balances on one foot and tries again to pull her other foot over her head. She can't do it. Shawnda and the others drop her down to the ground.

"Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds please."

Berry directs Shawnda and her partners in the triple back handspring-plus-back flip with full twist to give it one more go. With Berry five feet in front of them, the three girls lurch backward. Berry follows, clapping her hands and yelling, "C'mon! C'mon!"

After Shawnda lands safely on her feet, Berry pats her on the back. "All right," the coach says. "You're ready. All right."

The Greenup squad exits the tent and heads over to the Indiana Jones Super Stunt Spectacular theater, where they will perform in this morning's preliminary round. There are thirty-one other high school teams from around the country competing against Greenup. Ten will be chosen for tomorrow night's finals.

Berry pulls the sick Jessica Newell aside and tells her to water down her tumbling run. Normally, Jessica would do a round-off with two whip-backs. A whip-back is a straight-legged back flip, like a back handspring except you don't use your hands to push off midway through. Berry wants Jessica to do a round-off to a back handspring to a back tuck instead.

As th e girls come closer to the theater, they grow quiet. They can hear the crowd now, and that thumping dance music. Then they hear the often sampled cheerleading tag line booming from the theater's speakers: "It ain't over till the fat lady sings."

Berry lets out a wail -- "AAAAAAHHH!" -- and laughs. Her tense cheerleaders manage to smile; a few giggle.

Near the line of cheer squads waiting to perform, a dusty mat lies on the asphalt, to be used for last-minute practice. Berry tells Aubrey to try her heel stretch. So Shawnda and company hoist her up, but again, Aubrey fails to hold the foot above her head.

"You've got to hold it," says Berry. "You're not stretched. You're not stretched, see? Girls, get her stretched."

Berry walks away. Aubrey starts to cry.

"You're okay," Shawnda says. Shawnda uses the broad side of her finger to catch Aubrey's tears before they run down her face and streak her makeup.

Aubrey takes a deep breath and sucks back her tears. Then she lies down with her back on the asphalt while Shawnda and the other bases stretch, rub down, and pound both sides of her left thigh.

Aubrey tries the heel stretch again. This time, she holds it, but looks shaky. Her teammates go to work on her again, stretching, rubbing, pounding.

The rest of the Greenup team unpacks their competition shoes.

Berry watches as Aubrey tries the heel stretch once more. Again she holds it, and looks less shaky.

"Okay," Berry says, "put on your shoes."

Once all the cheerleaders are in their new white shoes, Berry tells the girls to sit down together on the blacktop and close their eyes.

"Visualize, girls, visualize," Berry says while standing over them. "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven , eight. One, two, three..."

Berry counts to eight again and again. The girls, heads bowed, eyes closed, envision each moment of their routine. When the chant portion comes up, Berry stops counting, and in whispers, their heads still bowed, their eyes still closed, the girls chant. "Funkytown" ("Won't you take me to funkytown?") blasts behind them.

"g. c. h. s. greenup. is. the. best."

Afterward, many of the girls hug, hold hands.

"It was perfect," Shawnda says, smiling. Then she directs Aubrey to lie back on the pavement and stretch her thigh some more.

"No stressing here," says Berry. "No stressing here."

Most of the Greenup girls get in line behind three other teams. It shouldn't be long now.

Amanda Pennington tries her standing back tuck again. Aubrey practices her heel stretch while Berry watches.

"Don't bend your leg," says Berry. "Don't even think about it."

Aubrey's foot slips out of her hand; she falls.

Jess Madden, a senior, squats down, propping her head up with her hands. Coach Light walks behind her and whacks her on the butt with a rolled-up competition program.

"Whuuuut?" Jess drawls as she stands up.

"What's wrong?" asks Light.

"I'm nervous."

"Here," Light says, "bite my arm."

Jess looks up at Light's face. Then she takes his forearm in her hands and chomps down.

"Feel better?"

"Yeah," Jess says, momentarily relaxed.

Light kisses Jess on the cheek, and whacks her on the butt again.

With one more team to go before the Greenup girls perform, Shawnda gets the team lipstick from Berry. A handful of girls crowd around Shawnda and pucker up. The crowd roars as the team ahead of Greenup enters the theater.

All nineteen cheerleaders get in a circle, pu t their arms around each other, and chant the Lord's Prayer while dance music blares, cheerleaders shriek, and the audience whoops. With her wide wing span, Shawnda holds nearly half the Greenup huddle in her arms.

"Our Father -- "


"One, two, three, four, get your booty on the floor!"

" -- hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth -- "

"Gotta gotta get up a' get down, gotta gotta get up -- "

" -- this day, our daily bread, and forgive us -- "


" -- as we forgive those who trespass -- "



" -- us not into temptation, but deliver us from -- "

"R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to -- "

" -- for You are the -- "

"Sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me, sock it to me -- "


Copyright © 1999 by James McElroy

Table of Contents

Nationals 'Ninety-Seven
1.Cheer to Win11
2.She's a Cheerleader at Greenup!25
4.To Leave Greenup County53
5.An Appendectomy, a Car Wreck, a Back Tuck79
6.Olive Oyl98
Kings Island
8.Equal Rights and All That Crap125
9.What's Good for the Boys Isn't Always Good for the Girls155
10.Different, but Similar174
11.Fight Greenup Fight190
12.Faith on Three215
13.Queen Candidate233
14.Candy Says, Candy Says256
Nationals 'Ninety-Eight
15.Because ... I Don't Know Why287
16.Psychological Warfare297
17.The Best Team in the Land330
Photo Listing366

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