Injured, but never broken

A former cheerleader recounts experiencing and overcoming an ankle injury.

Listen to the author read their essay.

A constant clicking sound follows me wherever I go. 

Passersby might mistake it for the clack of my shoes on cement, and it often gets blanketed by the bustle of campus life. But it’s not my shoes, and it’s always there even when nobody’s listening.

I was a cheerleader for 16 years, and my tired left ankle is a creaky souvenir of that. As I walk, it sounds like someone popping their gum or throwing bang snaps against the sidewalk. 

I remember really starting to notice the click in every step when I was a junior in high school, but I don’t know the exact moment I actually injured my ankle. I just know that as a competitive cheerleader, pushing my body to its limits and brushing off aches and pains was regular. I never wanted to take a break from my sport unless I could tell something was seriously wrong.

After all, I was head captain. I had a team to lead.

Usually, sore muscles and other feelings of overexertion would come and go, so I guess I just didn’t expect my ankle’s click to stick around for so long until it did. 

As a flyer, I’d tell my bases, the people tossing me into the air, to squeeze the left ankle a little tighter for me while I was performing stunts — spinning and flipping and balancing. It simply didn’t have the same stability as the right one anymore. 

I even started wearing an ankle brace, which was a huge deal because every tumbling instructor I ever had warned me against “favoring” an ankle like that.

I never saw an end in sight when it came to cheer. It was my thing and my escape from things all at once. So when I won All Catholic Senior, which is the pinnacle of cheerleading awards in the Philadelphia area and meant I was first place in the district, it felt like it was only the beginning.

Naturally, I tried out for Temple University cheerleading. I made the team, and I was so excited to continue doing what I love. 

It didn’t last long. College-level stunting was not kind to my crunching ankle. 

I tried my best to stick it out for the sake of my favorite sport, but the ankle click started sounding like my body’s cry for help. I had never treated it as an injury, but I finally knew it was time to throw in the towel — or the poms. 

Quitting cheerleading was one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make. It was a huge part of me.

Now, a senior in college, I feel like the cheerleader version of me is so far away. She’s in a different universe, still throwing her body across a blue mat and smiling through sweat. She’s more muscular than me, and she craves the adrenaline rush of all eyes on her. But with each step, each click, I feel like we’re not too many worlds away.

Now, I coach my alma mater. And when I walk into the old gym that I spent most of my time in during high school, I’m greeted by smiling faces and waving hands of about 30 girls who are eager to learn from me. 

My days of being front and center on the cheer mats are over. Instead, I thrive on their enthusiasm for the thrill I once knew. As I motivate them from the sidelines of a field, court or mat, I’m moved to think they value those moments as much as I did. At least, I sure hope they do.

Not being a cheerleader anymore is fine because I get to be the coach of talented, passionate athletes. Instead of being a smiling face on the mat, I’m responsible for 30 of them.

I often still catch my former coach’s voice in my head saying, “Positive thoughts bring positive results.” It’s something that’s always stuck with me in and out of the realm of cheerleading. 

I’m humbled to know I might say something that sticks with one of my cheerleaders someday. Maybe I already said it. I’ll never know, but that’s OK. The looks of pride on their faces while they do what they love and knowing I’m a small part of it is rewarding enough.

My ankle still clicks and probably always will, but it’s not painful or annoying. In fact, I can pretty much tune it out because I’m so used to it at this point.

But sometimes I listen for it. It sounds like nostalgia. It’s a battle wound of my glory days and a reminder that I’m still her. What I once loved more than anything isn’t separate from who I am now. 

And it’s a reminder that I should tell my cheerleaders to take proper care of themselves.

Listen to how the author was inspired to write this story.

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