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.

What the researchers found was that the number of injuries more than doubled during the 13-year study period, from 10,900 reported injuries in 1990 to 22,900 reported in 2002.

Additionally, researchers at the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research note that between 1982 and 2006, of the 107 direct catastrophic injuries to high school and college female athletes, cheerleading was related to 60 — more than half.

More Competitive, Younger Girls

Competitions have, in some cases, shaped the cheerleading styles of teams on high school and college levels. More teens — particularly teen girls — are getting involved. And some sustain life-ending injuries.

In 2005, 14-year-old Ashley Burns of Medford, Mass., died after her spleen ruptured following a stunt in which she was hurled into the air and landed improperly. And in 2006, 24-year-old Bethany Norwood, a cheerleader at Prairie View A&M in Texas, died from complications after a paralyzing fall during a 2004 practice session.

Despite the risks of competitive cheerleading, those involved in the rough-and-tumble sport are not likely to stop pushing the envelope in their stunt-filled routines.

'This Was Her Passion'

England says she believes the last thing Chang would have wanted would be for her accident to drive participants away from the sport.

"She loved what she was doing, and she wouldn't want people to stop doing what they loved," she says.

"This was her passion. … She would hate to see anyone stop doing what they loved because of a freak accident."

Nancy Chang echoed the sentiment.

"Lauren died doing what she loved ... cheerleading and being with her friends," Nancy Chang said.

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