Cheerleader Death Highlights Dangers of Sport

The family of a Massachusetts cheerleader, who died accidentally after she was kicked in the chest during a competition last Monday, now is working with state lawmakers to ensure the tragedy doesn't repeat itself.

"We hope her death will shed light on the inherent risks of cheerleading and we hope that additional safeguards are taken," said Lauren Chang's mother Nancy Chang, who doesn't believe safety, education or medical services have kept up with a sport that has become more daring during the years.

Twenty-year-old Lauren Chang was at a weekend competition in Worcester, Mass. as part of the Energy Cheer team when the incident occurred. According to her death certificate, she was "accidentally kicked in the chest during a cheerleading competition."

Specifically, the certificate states that she died of complications from a condition known as bilateral pneumothoraces — in which the lining of both lungs swells, decreasing the ability of the lungs to take in air.

It's the kind of injury that is normally sustained in a car accident, or a fall from a great height. But as more high-flying, acrobatic stunts make their way into the routines of competitive cheerleaders, emergency rooms around the country report that these and other injuries are on the rise among the sport's young participants.

The members of a Massachusetts gym remembered Lauren Chang as a standout, even among her smiling, energetic team of competitive cheerleaders during a memorial event.

"She was just wonderful," said Kim England, owner and gym director of Energized Athletics in Watertown, Mass. "Her smile, everything about her — she was always the positive one. ... There were just no flaws."

England, who was at the event, won't talk about the circumstances that led to Chang's death. But she says that the 25 or so members of the coed team are grieving their loss.

"We've had an open door policy at the gym, and they've been in and out all week, just being together and hugging," she says. "We're going to miss her like you wouldn't believe."

A Dangerous Sport?

There may have been a time when cheerleading was mostly pompoms and megaphones, a few short cheers and high kicks. But what began as an activity traditionally seen as a side show to a sporting competition has evolved into an acrobatic extravaganza, complete with injury-defying flips and throws that send squad members 20 feet into the air.

Along with this evolution has come a spike in injury rates related to cheerleading. Part of this increase could be due to what cheerleading has become — a high-energy hybrid of conventional routines with gymnastic techniques that arose during the 1980s and has been steadily gaining in popularity ever since. Far from being relegated to football sidelines, such competitions are now featured on ESPN. The participating squads don't cheer for any specific team but engage solely in the judged events.

In 2006, a study in the journal Pediatrics offered some perspective on the risk of injury through this competition sport. Using data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, researchers at the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, examined the number of cheerleading-related injuries reported by hospital emergency rooms among participants 5 to 18 years old from 1990 to 2002.

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