When the news broke that 20-year-old Lauren Chang of Newton, Mass., had died during a cheerleading contest last week, there was one person who was not shocked. Jessica Smith, a 19-year-old Californian, says that's because it almost happened to her.
Chang died on April 14 during a meet in Worcester, Mass., after she was accidentally kicked in the chest while performing a "basket catch" routine.
"Lauren died doing what she loved … cheerleading and being with her friends," her sister, Nancy Chang, told reporters last week.
Smith came close to losing her own life after falling 15 feet and landing on her head at a meet in Sacramento, Calif.
"I just can't believe girls are still being injured and girls are dying over cheerleading. If anyone told me cheerleading could be the cause of my death I would never have thought that," Smith told ABC News.
But it almost was. In 2006, Smith was a "flier" for a team at Sacramento City College. Smith was performing a trick that required her to do a handstand and then be thrown before landing in the arms of her teammates. But the trick didn't go according to plan because "the guy who was going to catch me lost his balance and I came straight down on my head," said Smith. She ended up with a spinal fracture that doctors say was a millimeter away from paralyzing her.
And, it turns out, Smith is one of the lucky ones.
Say Phommanyvong's 17-year-old daughter, Patty, was paralyzed after sustaining a brain injury last October in Los Angeles while cheering for Marshall High School's football team. Phommanyvong said his daughter was hit in the chest during a catch and her heart stopped. There reportedly was not a working defibrillator at the stadium. Her family says it took 30 minutes for an ambulance to arrive and by then Patty had suffered serious brain damage because of a lack of oxygen.
Phommanyvong is a recent immigrant from Laos and can only watch helplessly as his daughter spends her days – mostly unresponsive – in a California rehab hospital. "Her body is very, very stiff. She opens her eyes and sometimes blinks. She cannot eat or talk. I think she recognizes us, sometimes. I think so," Phommanyvong told ABC News.
And then there's 14-year-old Ashley Burns, of Medford, Mass., who on August 9, 2005 died of an injury to her spleen during a practice session at East Elite Cheer Gym in Tewksbury, Mass. Burns was in the middle of a move known as an arabesque double-down when she failed to complete the second of two twists. She landed chest down and died shortly after.
Her mom, Ruth, describes her only child as an athlete who loved rock music and animals. "I miss her every day," said Burns in an e-mail exchange with ABC News. She has had to piece together what happened to her daughter bit by bit. Burns believes the coaches waited too long to call the ambulance, until her daughter was throwing up blood and having convulsions. "She was pronounced dead before I even got there," said Burns.
Ashley Burns was believed to be the first cheerleading death in Mass., making Chang's death the second. Chang was an all-star cheerleader. During a meet at the Minuteman Cheerleading Championships, Chang was kicked in the chest; she staggered off the floor and collapsed. Her coach Kim England calls what happened to Chang a "freak, freak accident."