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After cheerleader's death, a closer look at the sport

Posted by Your Town  April 18, 2009 09:01 AM

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Lauren Chang

By Kathleen Burge, Globe Staff

It has been a year since a young, dark-haired woman from Newton collapsed during a cheerleading competition and died, leaving behind her smiling portrait as a grim testament to the dangers of her sport.

The memory of Lauren Chang’s death is still so traumatic that members of her Watertown-based cheerleading team, Energy Cheer, will sit out this weekend’s Minuteman Cheerleading Championships in Worcester, where Chang died last year. That tragedy, as well as another death and a serious injury suffered by cheerleaders in recent years, is pushing Massachusetts and into the crusade to make cheerleading safer.

Chang’s family worked with state Representative Peter J. Koutoujian to file a bill in the Legislature this year that would create a committee that could recommend ways to make cheerleading less dangerous. Last fall, the mother of Ashley Burns, a Medford 14-year-old who died in a 2005 cheerleading accident, filed a lawsuit in her death. In addition to seeking damages, Ruth Burns is also asking a judge to force national groups that sanction cheerleading competitions and oversee the sport to adopt more stringent safety rules.

And the mother of a Rowley cheerleader, seriously injured last year as she was attempting the same move that killed Burns, is coming forward, hoping her family’s story will focus attention on the dangers of cheerleading.

‘‘We’ll never get back what we lost,’’ said Kim Kozlowski, whose daughter, Haley Spause, couldn’t walk for three months after sustaining a head injury in a fall during a cheerleading maneuver.

Those who advocate greater regulation of cheerleading say that as the activity has become more complex and dangerous in recent decades, safety standards have not evolved to protect young athletes. In their routines, cheerleaders can be tossed 10 to 20 feet into the air, bodies moving at high speeds.

‘‘Modern cheerleading mostly closely resembles the sport of gymnastics, only without the mat and safety regulations,’’ Koutoujian said. ‘‘These are serious athletes that literally risk their necks to perform high-level stunts.’’

A report released a few months after Chang died last April amplified the dangers of cheerleading. In the report, Dr. Robert C. Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine and chairman of Emerson Hospital’s department of surgery, described cheerleading as the most dangerous sport in which high school and college-age women participate. Between 1982 and 2007, more than half of the serious injuries and deaths among the athletes were related to cheerleading, Cantu wrote in the report for the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research. Many of those who died or sustained serious injuries were fliers, the person thrown into the air during a maneuver.

‘‘What’s staggering, really, is that the single most dangerous activity in sports in schools is to be a flier in cheerleading,’’ Cantu said. ‘‘The chance for catastrophic injury is exponentially higher than for any other sports activity.’’

The US All Star Federation for Cheer & Dance Teams, a group created five years ago, has been working to make the sport safer. The group has begun issuing credentials for cheerleading coaches, requiring both a written test and field experience, and within the past year began certifying gyms that offer cheerleading instruction, said Tegan Jemma Reeves, a spokeswoman for the organization.

Reeves declined to discuss the Burns lawsuit, which names the US All Star Federation as well as the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators as defendants.
She also said her group was still researching how to respond to Chang’s death, although she said the event seemed to have a proper emergency plan in place, and had the required medical personnel onsite.

Ruth Burns was one of the founding family members of the National Cheer Safety Foundation, a California-based group. Kimberly Archie, the foundation’s executive director, said that groups that teach young people to perform cheerleading stunts need to pay more attention to safety.

‘‘It’s death-defying, gravity-defying stunts,’’ she said. ‘‘That’s a long way from shaking pom-poms on the sidelines like I did in the ’80s.’’

Archie, Cantu and other champions of cheerleading safety say that the activity should be better regulated. The rules governing cheerleading practices and competitions vary significantly among the groups overseeing the athletes, which can include high schools, gyms, and cheerleading camps. For instance, Cantu said that cheerleading moves should always be performed over mats, but cheerleaders are often asked to perform on hardwood floors or running tracks. The safety rules of the US All Star Federation for Cheer & Dance Teams say only that athletes must practice and perform on ‘‘an appropriate surface.’’

In the three recent Massachusetts cheerleading accidents, parents and others raised concerns about how quickly the young women received medical care.

At the time of Chang’s fall last spring, the emergency medical technician on duty was away from the competition, restocking her supplies after earlier injuries.

Kozlowski said an ambulance wasn’t called for her daughter until she arrived at the event, held at Triton Regional High School, about 20 minutes after the accident and requested one.

Burns said that her daughter would still be alive if she had received medical care sooner. Instead, she said, after her daughter hit her stomach on another cheerleader’s shoulder and ruptured her spleen, coaches at Tewksbury’s East Elite Cheer Gym reacted by instructing her to stretch her hands over her head, and then sent her to the bathroom to splash cold water on her face.

‘‘They told her she was out of breath,’’ she said. ‘‘They had no emergency medical equipment and obviously they didn’t have an emergency medical plan.’’

The Medford freshman eventually passed out, and gym officials called 911, but it was too late. Burns said she raced to the hospital and saw a priest going into her daughter’s room. Soon after, she was told her daughter had died.

Burns has turned her Medford living room into a memorial to her daughter, her ashes in an urn above the fireplace. Every night, she lights candles. She has become a crusader for greater safety regulations in cheerleading, and speaks on behalf of the National Cheer Safety Foundation, which recently drafted an emergency plan for groups overseeing cheerleaders, urging them to prepare for injuries and recognize the signs of life-threatening conditions.

Kozlowski said that her daughter was pressured into attempting a complicated move called a double down, in which teammates tossed her into the air so she could spin around twice before landing in their arms, a few days before a regional competition. Instead, Haley, 14, fell to the floor headfirst.

‘‘It was a combination of everyone not being taught and there being pressure to succeed and perform,’’ she said.

Haley, who missed months of school, eventually learned to walk again. But she still suffers from pain, and her mother sees a more anxious child who struggles at school for the first time.
Lauren Chang was 20 years old and a Newton North High graduate when she took part in the Minuteman competition last spring at the DCU Center in Worcester. Chang and her teammates were midway through their routine when they performed a basket toss, sending another young woman into the air. When the teammate landed, she accidentally kicked Chang in the chest. Chang ran to the back of the mat and collapsed, and an autopsy showed she died after her lungs collapsed. Chang’s family declined to discuss her death.

On Wednesday, the one-year anniversary of Chang’s death, all classes were canceled at Energized Athletics in Watertown, the gym where she practiced cheerleading, said owner Kim England. The building remained open for anyone who wants wanted to remember Chang. The cheerleading teams decided not to attend the Minuteman championships this year.

Some of the young woman women who were teammates who cheered with Chang dropped out after she died. This year, the team has her initials stitched onto their uniforms.

‘‘It was for Lauren this year,’’ England said. ‘‘It was all about Lauren.’’

Kathleen Burge can be reached at For more coverage of Newton, go to

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14 comments so far...
  1. Cheer programs can download life saving emergency medical information for FREE at

    Posted by Kimberly Archie April 18, 09 10:15 AM
  1. R.I.P. Lauren, you were a great friend

    Posted by chuck April 18, 09 10:19 AM
  1. Cheer programs may download the life saving emergency plan mentioned in the article for FREE at and a heat stroke prevention guide at

    Posted by Kimberly Archie April 18, 09 10:47 AM
  1. In baseball, basketball and football if you miss catching the ball it is not catastrophic. There can be no misses catching a flyer. I coached pop warner and varsity for 18 years. The level of difficulty has increased dramatically. Double downs are just too dangerous! They are even dangerous for the bases and back spots as they can get nailed by elbows if the flyer doesn't tuck enough. I realize they look wonderful but are they worth dying over? absolutely NOT!!

    Posted by Diana April 18, 09 11:48 AM
  1. What a horrible tragedy, it is so sad to lose young athletes.

    I have been a cheerleading coach for 12 years and I make sure that I am trained in safety, as should every cheerleading coach. If you have a child who is a cheerleader, talk to the coach. Ask them what special training that they have, and if the answer is none, talk to the school or the gym and press the issue.

    As for some of the posts on here, every single stunt or tumbling pass in cheerleading is dangerous and there is a risk of catastrophic injury. However, if progression is followed, even the most elite stunt can be done safely. We can't put these kids in a bubble to protect them, but we can make sure that the coaches that we place in charge of them are well trained and put the safety of the kids over the glitz of the trophy.

    Posted by sonja April 18, 09 02:07 PM
  1. Such a beautiful young girl. My heart goes out to her family. Her mother's tribute to her each evening, lighting a candle, is very touching and very sad. I hope something positive comes out of this tragic accident. Cheerleading is a very dangerous sport. there's no doubt about that. Some changes need to be made concerning the lack of safety in this sport to prevent future loss of life.

    Posted by MKM April 18, 09 02:16 PM
  1. All the safety courses in the world for these coaches is not going to alleviate the fact that these are young girls performing something that is inherently dangerous. It's Russian Roulette. I turn my head when I see the cheerleaders in my town performing these type of stunts. the last thing I want to see is one of these girls landing on the ground, especially headfirst. At the rate this sport is going, They'll be coaching these type of stunts for cheerleaders at the elementary/middle school ages. There is nothing thrilling about it, & the State should stop these stunts outright. How many girls have to be permanently injured or killed until the state bans it? The parents of these girls that have been seriously injured or killed should be Sueing the Competition Committees, The MCAA, & the Athletic Facilities & School Departments to the hilt, & then maybe the insurance companies will wake up & ban it themselves

    Posted by Dave Z April 18, 09 05:50 PM
  1. this is such a tragedy! i am one of the lucky ones who survived a catastrophic cheer injury. cheerleading is not going anywhere, so the safety standards must change, and change quickly. i have cheered and coached for many years and i am well aware that things must be different. or else these deaths and injuries will continue. no parent wants to see their child go through a catastrophic injury... or die!
    R.I.P lauren and ashley

    Posted by kpr April 18, 09 07:24 PM
  1. Wouldn't it make sense to stop doing all the dangerous stunts and stick to simpler cheers? Parents know its dangerous, the kids know its dangerous, so why keep doing it. It isn't worth permanent injury or death.

    Posted by baroque April 18, 09 07:57 PM
  1. Omigosh. I am going to try out for cheerleading..... but then I read this. I don't think I'm small enough to be a flier though :( I'm pretty tall *sigh*
    *in loving memory of lauren chang and ashley burns*

    Posted by missy April 19, 09 07:31 PM
  1. i would like to say that yes cheerleading is dangerous but we made our commitment to get in. every sport can be dangerous. And our parents support us n everything if something happens yes it s bad but once again it was our choice to get in n put our life on hte line. R.I.P lauren n ashley

    Posted by alj April 22, 09 04:13 PM
  1. First of all what happened to April 19th 's Gobe?? I went out and bought multiple copies and this was told to the family & friends of this date..
    Not very happy but glad I got to see this ..
    Has The Globe sent the Burns family any copies?? I certainly hope so !!

    I am so very scared for anyone to be doing these stunts !! I am so very heartbroken for the family & the devastating loss of "Ashley Marie Burns ."
    Noone and nothing can ever replace a child !!
    I'm also very sorry for the family of Lauren Chang ..R.I.P to these beautiful young girls..I just want to say that their memory will live on and I pray Ms Ruth Burns and all the other families that have lost a child to this sport. I hope sooner than later we can make sure this doesn't happen to other children....
    As we are waiting for this to go through congress other children are getting seriously hurt injured and or dying ..I wish this foundation was started years ago so something like this never would have happened...
    Why did we have to wait to watch Ashley & Lauren and all the other beautiful little girls get hurt or pass..
    I know they are trying to make it safer for these kids NOW but what if it was then maybe they would all have still been here going to Hign School ,college or getting married etc...
    I pray for the families and pray for a piece of mind to these mothers somehow somewhere in this cruel world..
    People are very mean to these families because they don't like change !!
    They think the people who are trying to make it better are taking the fun out of it..What fun is it to watch your child get injured or die...Please think about your own children before you criticize Ms Ruth Burns or any other family ..Because you don't have to walk a mile in her or their shoes...
    I pray for the strength everyday for Ruth Burns & her family...
    You are loved and missed every day,Always & Forever¢¾ .
    ¢¾ ¢¾

    Posted by SMB.~ April 23, 09 12:49 PM
  1. My heart goes out too the family of those two beautiful little girls. Its sad to hear about there loss!!!!!!!! To Ruth Burns im glad that your trying to make your only childs dream come true by making cheerleading a sport and that there should be saftey personel I agree with you 100% cheerleading has changed since i was a child keep up the good work!!!!!!!!!!!! RIP MISS ASHLEY AND LAUREN CHANG BOTH FOREVER MISSED

    Posted by loveuashley April 24, 09 11:36 PM
  1. My daughter cheers and although we should not be afraid ... we should be cautious. God Bless Laurten and all cheerleaders whose tradegies have saved others from similiarn fates.

    Posted by `michelle July 1, 09 07:59 PM