A cross country meet is not the place where one normally expects to see cheerleaders. That tradition is more closely associated with football and basketball games where crowds fill the bleachers. Yet there were cheerleaders assigned to our cross country team in the 1970s. One of them is a friend of mine on Facebook.
Her name is Ellen Erickson Piccony. I played basketball with her brother Lance on the high school team as well. “I wanted to cheer for basketball when my brother was playing,” she recalls. “But we didn’t always have a choice. So I cheered for cross country and wrestling.”
Respect and excitement
She noted that her admiration for the athletes in both those sports grew quickly. “Wrestling is exciting,” she recalled. “The sad thing is there is no real place to watch the sport after high school. Professional wrestling isn’t real wrestling,” she wryly observed.
It’s no wonder she was an admirer of the sport at the time. St. Charles High school had an astoundingly talented state champion in Dave Powell, along with a state third place wrestler in Joel Hestrup. There were many other great wrestlers in the program as well. What an interesting contrast in cheering for those two sports must have been.
Cross country cheerleaders
As for cheering at cross country meets, “We could not have done it without Trent (Richards),” she said of the late cross county and track coach. “He appreciated that we were there and treated us with a lot of respect,” she recalled. “He’d tell us where to go during the race so that we could cheer you guys on.”
It wasn’t glamorous work. “We often had to find our own way to the meets,” she said of cheering for wrestling and cross country. “We’d find rides or get someone to take us. Trent was the one that invited us to ride on the bus. We rode with the cross country team to the meets. But we weren’t about to go on that wrestling bus. We heard about the gross things that go on there, trying to make weight and stuff,” she laughed.
The cross country and wrestling cheer squad was comprised of six girls; Roxanne Arand, Carol Schreiber, Mary Ellen Pooley, Ellen Erickson, Claudia Donnelly and Kim Vance. Several were athletes in other sports. Ellen is third from right.
As one can imagine, attending cross country meets was somewhat less intense than cheering at a wrestling event in the confined spaces of resounding gymnasiums.
So the gals would often place themselves at intervals along the course. But much like today’s cross country programs, the story of the sport on most days was the personal battles of improved times and team camaraderie that mattered. Bearing witness to that was what made the sport rewarding for Ellen Erickson. “Getting to know the guys and seeing how hard they worked and ran. That was the fun part.”
The previous year a different set of cheerleaders lined up at meets. That season the team won multiple races including invitationals and a district meet. So every season offered up a different flavor of success. Of course I well recall literally being the “new kid in town” that fall after transferring from a nearby high school. I wound up dating one of the cheerleaders (she’s in the photo at far left below) but our little romance did not last past the season. Such are the dalliances of high school excitement and fun in the moment.
Of course there was life beyond cheerleading and cross country during those high school years as well. Ellen recalled a spring break trip that a group of students and the wrestling coach arranged. The plan was to visit Big Bend National Park and canoe down the Rio Grande. “But the river was too high when we got there. So we partied in the campsite instead.”
I recalled that I’d dearly wanted to go on the trip that spring, but was also a bit anxious about the idea. Some of the kids signed up for the trip were known for their partying habits, and I knew I wasn’t in their league. Plus I didn’t want to get thrown out of track for drinking. So I stayed back home to train the week of spring break but had always wondered what it would have meant to experience the west that early in life.
Ellen shared that the group finally did get on the river. “The camp ranger finally got sick of us,” she laughed. “He told us to go ahead and canoe.”
I mentioned the trip would have been special to me with such an interest in nature. “It might have been life-changing,” I told her. She responded, “There were lots of people on that trip who went for that reason.”
Perceptions and memories
Those recollections illustrate how thin the veneer of our perceptions and memories can be. But sometimes a seemingly innocent period of time has more meaning than we might think.
Ellen recalled that the guy she dated in high school reached out to her a few years back with a message he wanted her to hear. He’d done quite well in life and wanted to thank her for the early influence on his outlook. She told me: “He came from a rough family life and said that dating me and meeting my family was important. ‘You made me see what it could be like and showed me what I wanted in life,’ ” he told her.
It all proves that while it doesn’t pay to live in the past, neither should we write off the experiences that form who we are. They help us face challenges in the present time, and give us insights on the people around us. You never know what you might mean to someone, someday, if you cheer them on a little.
That’s the kind of cheerleading we can all use about now, don’t you think?