In the wake of cheerleader Lauren Chang's death, Globe reporter Erin Ailworth spoke this morning with Les Stella, the vice president of programs for the US All Star Federation for Cheer & Dance Teams. Here's what he had to say about cheerleading and safety:
Q: What is the mission of the USASF?
A: I can read it off our website: The mission of the US All Star Federation is to maximize the number of participants benefiting from the positive life experiences of All Star cheerleading and dance by developing competition rules and All Star gym training guidelines consistent with the latest, best known safety, educational, and ethical practices.
Q: What is your role with the company? Yesterday, somebody told me you were the "rules guy" ...
A: I kind of develop and oversee the new programs. I am the "rules guy," if that's what you really want to put in print .... When someone is working on a routine and they want to know if something is legal, they'll probably send me a video or describe it to me ... sometimes you need clarification [on what's allowed].
Q: How did the federation come about?
A: Different companies that were having competitions had different rules. So, you could take your team to Competition A on one weekend and you'd have to make your routine fit one set of rules. And the next weekend you'd go to Competition B with a different set of rules and you'd have to change your routine around ... which created less time to get prepared and an unsafe situation. ... [So USASF now] sets consistent rules and progression [to higher levels] for the athletes.
Q: You mentioned three phases that coaches must go through to become certified to train cheerleaders -- a hands-on test, a written test, and a validation. Can you talk about those?
A: The hands-on test ... is where, as a coach goes through each level and ... they have to describe certain skills.The instructor is making sure they are hitting the key points that keep athletes safe ... and can basically teach the skill properly and safely. Then there's a written test, which is basically the same thing ... and it comes into the office here and is graded ... . The experience validation form, a gym owner is required to sign off on their coaches stating that they have a certain amount of hours in coaching a certain level before they can move onto the next level.
Q: Talk a little bit about cheerleading and it's difficulty levels. There are three different types of tricks -- tumbling, stunting, and tossing -- that athletes do?
A: Tumbling is obviously tumbling just like you see in gymnastics ... the back handsprings and the flips ... you move into your more elite moves with the stunting ... where a person is supported above the performance surface by more than one person. [Level 6 teams, like Lauren's] that is the highest level. It is only allowed with athletes that are 17 years old or older.
Q: In a previous discussion, we talked about the risk inherent in any sport at the level of cheerleading's athleticism. Can you expand on that?
A: Anytime you are lifting someone up above you and/or tossing them and/or catching them, there's inherent danger. What we do at USASF with the rules and progression [of competitive levels] is to try to ensure the safety of the athletes.