Jessica LoBosco loved being a cheerleader. Starting at age 10, she cheered on several teams, building up to a competitive level.
"I thought it was a really fun experience that I wouldn't change," Jessica said. "But it's just too dangerous now."
As Jessica, 19, finishes up her first year at Connecticut State University, she talked to Channel One about the last days of her cheerleading career. It was her junior year of high school, and Jessica was practicing with her team right before a major competition. One of her teammates fell during practice and had to be taken to the hospital. The coaches decided to substitute a younger cheerleader and continue with the competition.
Jessica's position on the team, a base, supported one leg of the pyramid. But with a new, inexperienced team member, the stunt didn't go as planned.
"We brought her up, and she went up and fell straight down. And she just basically sat on my face. And we both hit the ground," Jessica recalled.
Jessica sustained a concussion. That was her second concussion from cheerleading in just a few weeks. Because of those injuries, Jessica suffers from short-term memory loss. If she needs to remember something, she must write it down.
"I'd write it always in my planner for school," she said. "But then I'd forget to look in my planner. So I had to write it on my arms, and I had ink all over my arms."
Jessica has eased off the ink as her memory slowly improves. But she sports a long list of past and current injuries, all of them the result of cheerleading. They include:
-- A sprained ankle
-- Tendonitis in both knees
-- A sprained shoulder
-- A hurt wrist
-- A broken left wrist
The most critical of these injuries was the concussion. A concussion is a head injury that can have serious side effects.
"It typically involves a rebounding of the brain, a jarring of the brain, in the cranial cavity," Dr. Kevin Guskiewicz, an athletic trainer and the chair of the Exercise and Sport Science department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He explained that the brain "becomes bruised" after a concussion. Symptoms can include:
-- Temporary loss of ability to think clearly and concentrate
-- Memory loss
-- Visual disturbances
-- Balance problems.
Experts say cheerleading has gotten more dangerous for the boys and girls who participate in it. The number of emergency room visits has shot up since 1980, according to a report by the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research (NCCSIR). The same report says high school cheerleaders account for 65% of all catastrophic sports injuries to female athletes.
A "catastrophic injury" is defined as a sports injury that results in a brain or spinal cord injury, or skull or spinal fracture.
A concussion is not necessarily considered catastrophic by itself, although it can turn into one under certain conditions. Jessica's tailbone fracture is considered catastrophic, however, because it's part of the spine. Her second concussion was serious enough that it took Jessica out of competitive cheerleading for good.
Jessica knew she'd have to stop being a cheerleader at some point. But she didn't think it would be so soon.
"I just feel like it wasn't my time," she said.
It was, after all, her junior year. Her classmates were planning their futures and her friends were still cheering. But Jessica was under doctor's orders to literally be still.
"To heal faster, I couldn't go to school for a while, I couldn't take tests, I couldn't watch t.v.," she said. "I just had to basically sit there and heal. And it was really hard."
And even though she can't compete or even cheer from the sidelines at a football game, Jessica says she loved cheering.
"I just loved the thrill of it," she said.
But she cautions that a lot of people don't realize the extent of injuries a cheerleader can sustain.
"You're having body-on-body contact and with no pads, no nothing," Jessica said. "Someone's bound to get hurt."