There are 30 seconds left. 16 girls stand huddled together, waiting in silence. A kind of emotional electricity shoots through the team, as they file soberly into a single line and offer their hands to the judges. "OK! Fingers, fingers!" yells a blond woman, who walks down the line scrutinizing everyone for jewelry--fingers first, then belly button rings, then tongue piercings. Lastly, she examines the length of their fingernails, cutting them if they appear too long.

In the final moments before the Clackamas Varsity Cheerleading Team takes the floor at this year's state championship, some wear calm, numb expressions. A few appear jittery. Others look like they might throw up. But as a deep voice over the intercom summons the team to the mat, every face simultaneously snaps into a crazed smile.


This is protocol for the Oregon State Cheerleading meet, an annual event that draws 46 teams from around the state. Earlier this month at the Memorial Coliseum, roughly 400 girls and boys joined with their teams to perform a two- to three-minute routine. The judges watched 10 straight hours of cheering.

"This is their Olympics," says Jan Halverson, the director of the state meet. "Being a rural state, a lot of these girls don't have a chance to go to nationals, so these competitions that we have during the year are 'It' for them," she explains. Halverson has been a cheerleader, parent of a cheerleader, or cheerleading coach for most of her life. "If one of these kids is the one who doesn't do her jump right, or falls out of a stunt, they take it personally," she says. "I've seen a lot of tragedies at these meets."


Kristin Kinnie is a slight woman with straight brown hair who wears a small gold cross around her neck. It's initially surprising to hear the depth of her voice when she coaches the girls. But it's clear that her nature is both firm and forgiving--as the girls often attest. "Kristin is your friend before she's your coach," says one of her cheerleaders. "But she does push our conditioning really, really hard in practice."

After four years of cheering at Hillsboro High, Kristin decided not to cheer in college--though she knew she wasn't finished with the sport. As she tells it, "I was voted Most Likely to Become a Cheerleading Coach in high school. I guess I was always a coach."

There are several sections of Clackamas, Oregon, the town in which Kristin coaches. One is the suburban neighborhood surrounding one of the biggest malls in the state, which flows into SE 82nd Ave in Portland. The other is mostly rural, with architecture and businesses dating back 75 years. Kristin trains her team in a small, white schoolhouse that most people miss the first time, even on such a lonely, gravel road.

Inside the schoolhouse, Kristin and her team practice 15 hours a week, about 40 weeks a year. Then there are the competitions on weekends, which can take 10 hours a day, in addition to the time Kristin puts into planning for the team.

This is Kristin's first year with the Varsity team, and she knows she's got a real challenge. Last year, Clackamas won the state championship after years of dueling it out with Tualatin, their rival team. With a cheerleading program that begins in the eighth grade, the Clackamas District breeds girls that are already at the level of other schools' sophomores and juniors, and by the time they're seniors, they've been cheering for five years.

But this year, Kristin has no seniors and only one returning member. She's regarded as a great coach, but like the girls on the team, she's relatively inexperienced. And she's got a lot to prove.

Shannon is the only participating member of the team who will be returning from last year. This is her second state meet, which makes her the team's most valuable asset. She's small, blond, and beautiful, with innocent, Bambi-like eyes and straight, shoulder-length hair. She's also a natural leader, seemingly more confident and mature than the others. "I do hang out with everyone on my team," she says, "but my boyfriend is kind of my main social activity. I hang out with him, like, a lot."

Shannon's a flyer: one of the girls who is hoisted up and thrown around during a stunt, and she's good at it. She admits that it's somewhat of a glory position--people blame her rather than the whole team for problems because she's the most visible--but she loves the other side as well. "It's a tough position sometimes, because I get a lot of attention but I love attention, so it's really perfect for me."

Last year, Shannon was working with the rest of the team on a pyramid stunt. It required someone to fly on their left foot, and even though Shannon usually flies on her right, she was nominated for the job. "It was good for awhile," Shannon explains. "I was really hitting it. But then there was a new base under me, and it was shaky all of a sudden. We kept trying it, but as I was coming down, the person who was spotting me had their foot in the way, and I ended up stepping right on their foot and rolled my ankle in a way I never had before. I heard this loud crack all of a sudden, and then it was hot and cold at the same time. I just collapsed and started crying."

That was in March; Shannon couldn't go to nationals. She had a cast for two months, and then had to deal with rehabilitating her broken ankle. Even so, she decided to try out again, in her cast. Luckily, she had an advantage because of her experience on the team and her attitude. Shannon's been cheering since the 8th grade.

But five weeks before this year's state competition, she started getting tired just walking from room to room. She couldn't get enough sleep. She had to stay home from school for a few weeks. The doctor informed her that she had mononucleosis, and she was bed-ridden and forbidden from practice. (The doctor told her that her spleen was extremely swollen and could explode from too much activity.) Two weeks later she felt better, but still didn't know if she could compete, and Kristin had to decide on the routine for state. The Friday before Shannon had to tell her coach whether or not she could perform at state, she still didn't know. "If I can't compete I'llI don't know what I'll do," she said sadly.

"I'm incredibly hard on myself," Lauren offers as explanation for how she got where she is on the Varsity team. "I love competing, but if I mess up I'll probably go kick a wall and have a little fit. It's just the way I am." Lauren has a kind of steely determination about her that no one else on the team can match. She's young--just turned 15 in January--and, while not as polished as Shannon, she seems almost possessed by a desire to succeed. This desire carries over to other areas of her life as well. After graduation, Lauren hopes to become a doctor, but not before cheering again at a college in Texas, the cheerleading capital of the world.

In addition to occasional main basing (the act of holding flyers in the air during stunts), Lauren's primary job is to tumble for the team, meaning she's one of the girls who flips back and forth constantly during the performance. She sometimes feels like a little sister, she says, because she's one of the only freshmen on the Varsity team. This is unusually young; most pay their dues by starting on Junior Varsity.

If there's one thing Lauren wishes for her team, it's success at the state meet with a move they've been working on all season: the Martinelli. Complicated, the Martinelli involves pushing a flyer up into a stunt, pulling her down, and then pushing her back up again. It's sophisticated, and takes patience and concentration from everyone involved. She'll be main basing during that stunt, something she's never done in a competition this big.

The All-Stars
There is one reason Clackamas has such a young team this year. A new kind of cheerleading has feverishly seduced hundreds of girls, stealing them from their high school teams. They're called the All-Stars.

Instead of having a school affiliation, the All-Stars have invented an entirely new league of cheerleading. The teams compete exclusively against each other, without being affiliated with any sports team. Most of their competitions are at the national level, and the members practice 30 hours a week and pay $100 a month for expert instruction. Since they're not affiliated with a high school, they don't compete at the state competition. Most have left their high school teams behind all together.

Clackamas lost 16 senior Varsity Cheerleaders to an All-Star team called NW Power Cheer. With those girls, Clackamas would have been a veteran team, rather than a "rebuilding team," as Kristin defines it. The real threat with the All-Stars, however, is not in the damage they've already inflicted; though it will be hard to rebuild, Kristin certainly possesses the ability to turn a team like this around. What's really scary is the threat of the future wounds the All-Stars might inflict.

While Clackamas suffered from the loss of members, their rival high school Tualatin was virtually crushed. Traditionally in the top three at the state meet, Tualatin's coach left for the All-Stars along with nearly all of their Varsity team. This year at state, Tualatin's stunts were weak and their tumbling non-existent. They didn't even place. Therefore Clackamas is faced with two choices: rebuild, or go the way of Tualatin.

In some ways, it's understandable why some left. All-Star teams get the glory. Most of the girls agree that cheering at high school games is much less rewarding than competing. "Competitions are our time to shine, you know?" says Shannon. "Cheering at games can be hard, because the crowd doesn't always participate." The All-Stars offer glory that comes with competitions, and none of the grunt work one has to put up with at school. Plus, as Lauren points out, the All-Star team can be a very good thing for cheerleaders who are looking to take cheerleading further than high school.

The All-Stars' presence attacked Clackamas both practically and mentally, breeding bitterness among the girls whose friends deserted them. "I just don't understand what the point of cheerleading is without a team to cheer for," says Rachel, another member of the team. "I mean, I support them, because I have friends on the team, but I just don't always understand what they're doing." Ominous as the All-Stars may be, it's still seductive. "I've definitely thought of trying out," says Lauren. "You know, it'd be good for getting scholarships. But my main concern is that people will be upset with me if I do. I don't want to betray anyone."

"How we do at state will definitely affect my decision to try out or not," says Lauren. "I mean, if we win, which I definitely think we could, I'd be a lot more encouraged to stay. I'd be part of something great." Shannon echoes similar thoughts. "A lot of my friends went to the All-Stars, and sometimes I think I'll just spend my senior year not cheering. But let's see how we do at state."

It's Finally Here
Shannon recovers from mono. The doctor approves her participation in the state meet, and she learns the routine without any trouble.

A week before the meet, Kristin feels good. Confidence is the most important thing. That's her goal for the week, to do everything over and over until it's second nature. They'll be pulling 100 Martinellis and Lauren will be practicing flip after flip. "We have to believe and trust in each other for this to work," says Lauren. "That's one thing I've learned this year."

The morning of the competition, all the parents and cheerleaders meet for breakfast. Until they change into their uniforms, the girls will be wearing black t-shirts that say "Winners Never Quit."

With 20 minutes before the team goes on, they put on their uniforms: Red and black skirts, curly hair, white bows. "Make sure you tie your shoes tight," Lauren warns everyone as her final words. Kristin gathers everyone together in a group hug, their last one before they go on.

This Is It
As the 16 girls run onto the mat, they are confident. Moves are clean, their cheers both loud and crisp. But then, just as they're gaining their initial momentum, they choke, and send half of a stunt up too early. That's before the unthinkable happens. It seems like a bad dream almost; it's so unbelievable. Just as Lauren's finishing her first full lay-out, her shoe loosens in the back, as if someone stepped on it. (To this day, no one knows exactly what happened. Possibilities include the loose shoelace theory and the back-of-the-shoe-got-stepped-on theory.) And then--her shoe falls off.

Lauren panics. With only one shoe, she can't possibly tumble; it would throw her balance off all together. Thinking quickly, she takes off the other shoe. It's a temporary remedy, and everyone knows they can't let it affect them. Though they regain enough composure to execute a perfect Martinelli, the damage has been done.

The rest of the routine is polished and automatic, but their knees shake a little, their mouths twitch at the corners. Though their smiles remain intact as they run off the mat, the moment they step back in the warm-up room, Lauren is sobbing into Kristin's arms as the rest stare dejectedly into space.

Hours later, as the girls wait for the awards to be announced, they huddle down on the performance mat, hands clasped together, praying. The other teams take identical positions, until the view from the stands resembles a field of wildflowers--brightly colored clumps of uniforms scattered all around the mat. Clackamas is sure they've placed, but they don't know where. Fifth place is announced first, then fourth... "Third place in the All-Girls 4A division goes to Clackamas!" They cheer, scream, and jump around spastically, as they tearfully run up to claim their trophy.

Everyone agrees they could have done much better, but the initial shock and pain of making mistakes in the routine wears off during the next few hours, and most seem to find hope in spite of what happened. Though things may have gone better in practice, this knowledge encourages them--it's a guarantee that next year will be an improvement, and provides them with a reason to continue. "Third was good for them," says Kristin. "They were really disappointed, but I think when you consider that 15 of those girls didn't have any state experience, I think they did extremely well."

Happily, Lauren learned that the shoe loss didn't count against them in any way other than shaking their confidence. And she appears to be in pretty good spirits about the experience. "You know, everyone seems fine now. We went out to dinner afterwards and had a lot of laughs."

Barring the fate of the three girls who left the state meet in an ambulance, most of the students who competed that day carry on with their lives without thinking too much about the events that took place on that day in early February. The first place trophy probably sits comfortably among others in a glass case in Churchill High School outside Eugene. (Incidentally, there are no All-Star teams based in Eugene). The trophy will stay there for an entire year, while 46 teams across the state spend thousands of hours getting ready for next year's event. Also preparing is Jan Halverson, who must begin her task all over again; coordinating the schedule, locating funding, sending out registration forms, and making sure she has all her paperwork together to reserve the Memorial Coliseum for an entire day of well-rehearsed enthusiasm.

And to think, all that preparation, all that sweat, and all the hopes and aspirations of 46 teams who want nothing more in the world than to be champions and sometimes it all comes down to a single shoe.