‘My leg popped’: Inside the dangerous world of competitive cheerleading

When Aleena Abrahamsen was 11 years old, she started having pain in her heel. The competitive cheerleader and advanced tumbler from Freehold, NJ, was diagnosed with Severs disease, a common condition that affects the heel, especially during growth spurts.

“It went away and would come back,” Abrahamsen, 15, told the Post. “Sometimes it bothered me and sometimes it didn’t.” The pain suddenly returned during a cheer practice in 2019 when she was asked to do a standing back tuck — a maneuver she had done hundreds of times.

“I was like, ‘My heel is killing me,’ so I just shifted my weight a little bit. Then I landed on my left foot and my leg popped. The overuse injury caused Abrahamsen to overcompensate and as a result she tore her ACL.

As competitive cheer, which involves highly acrobatic and athletic movements, has spread, and the sport has grown in popularity thanks to shows like Netflix’s “Cheer,” doctors are seeing more injuries compared to other youth sports.

A rah-rah-based accident is even the basis of Rebel Wilson’s new comedy, “Senior Year,” premiering Friday, about a high school cheerleader who falls during a stunt and goes into a 20-year coma. Although far-fetched, it is true that tumbling, stunts and flying can produce bruises, breaks and concussions.

“A common injury in cheer is an ACL tear. If we look at the data 10 years ago, close to 90% of the kids [with an ACL tear] played football, lacrosse, basketball, soccer and skiing,” said Dr. Daniel Green, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery. The Post. “And we’re definitely seeing more cheerleading ACL injuries than we did a decade ago.”

Green also sees arm and leg fractures and growth plate injuries from overuse, and lower back stress fractures from tumbling and gymnastics.

“Part of it is the athleticism of these young people. They are so strong, powerful and jump so high [that] if they land wrong, it can lead to injury,” Green said.

Green repaired Abrahamsen’s ACL with a pediatric procedure that uses her IT band. And during her rehabilitation, the tumbler got serious about injury prevention, adopting a weightlifting routine and later hitting the track to stay in shape to cheer.

“If I hadn’t gone through this, I wouldn’t know how to lift weights and get stronger,” said Abrahamsen, who is now on her school team and competition team and hopes to cheer for Herzog after high school.

In terms of brain injuries, a 2019 study published in the medical journal Pediatrics found that cheerleading ranks second in high school sports concussions, behind only football.

“I’ve seen a fair number of concussions,” Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital and former sideline physician for the New York Jets, told The Post. “But it’s not always a flyer that falls on the mat. They hit another person’s head in the pyramid as they come down.

Glatter saw most of the injuries while working in the Midwest where the sport is more widespread. Still, he added, “We shouldn’t just focus on head injuries. By and large, it’s muscle and ligament strains, ankle sprains and orthopedic injuries.

Glatter noted that the show “Cheer” whetted the appetite for faster, higher and riskier stunts.

“Look at what they do. They fly 30 feet in the air. If the guy doesn’t catch them properly, there are rarely serious injuries as a result. I saw a young athlete who caught one and had a fracture of his lower lumbar spine.

This is why Abrahamsen emphasizes the importance of coordination, discipline and communication in sports.

“You have to listen to your coach, you have to have a good work ethic and fit in well with your stunt group. If you don’t mix with your stunt group, it can be dangerous.

There is good news: The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research has released data that found that cheerleading has seen a reduction in major injuries since 2010. According to USA Cheer, it is due to more restrictions, safety protocols and better training for coaches.

Both Glatter and Green said that injury prevention, strengthening and sitting when injured are also key.

“This requires an incredible amount of flexibility, endurance and preparation, especially core strength. It’s one of the most important things in cheer,” Glatter said.

And Abrahamsen hopes the pop-culture spotlight will change the perception that cheer is all pom poms and hand claps. After all, she has the scars to prove it.

“People always tell me it’s not a real sport. No offense to golfers, but I don’t see how golf is a sport but cheer isn’t,” she said. “If people say it isn’t, I don’t even argue anymore.”

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