Western Washington competitive cheerleading coaches are reacting to a controversial video that appears to show a cheer coach in Denver forcing athletes into a split position.
By now, the video has been widely shared on social media and has been viewed all over the country. It shows a 13-year-old cheerleader who begs her coach to stop as she's being pushed into a split. The coach and several other school officials in Denver have been put on leave, and police are now investigating.
"My heart kinda of stopped for a second. As a parent, you imagine that as your kid, and it just makes your heart break a little bit when you see a kid crying like that," said Hallie Newton. She is the co-director of Tech Elite Cheer House, which is part of Tech Gymnastics & All Star Cheer in Woodinville.
She's also a mother, whose kids are active in both cheerleading and gymnastics.
"But I also know what my own child can act like when I try to stretch her a little bit," she said. "She's nine. And one of the things we're trying to teach younger kids is to push a little past the point of comfort, let it stretch, and don't push to the point of pain."
Newton's co-director and fellow coach, Lenny Lewis, had a similar reaction upon watching the video out of Denver.
"I had mixed reviews. I do know the coach that was involved, and I don't think that what was seen on the video was him intending to hurt that athlete," he said.
Lewis said he is familiar with the stretching technique seen in the video. He also said he doesn't use it with the kids he coaches.
"I don't use it, I don't think that it is safe," he said. "But there is a way to get your athletes to learn how to push through those barriers of what they feel is their limit on certain things, without putting their health at risk. And we do practice that here, and our girls are uncomfortable. And sometimes they do cry."
He said stretching is a big part of the sport of cheerleading.
"I mean you do have to be flexible because certain body positions we do are not normal," he said. "If it was normal everyone would do it."
But much like Newton, he believes the key is to teach young athletes the difference between discomfort and pain while doing stretches and splits.
"It takes sitting down and talking to the parent and the athlete and making them truly understand that we're not there to hurt the child," he said.
Lewis and Newton try to have those conversations with a cheerleader and her parents before even attempting any type of intense stretch that might push a cheerleader's limits.
At this point, it does not appear that conversation took place among the coach and members of the cheerleading team in Denver.
Lewis and Newton say the bottom line is that coaches have to listen to the athletes they're training.
"I don't want to stone a coach without knowing the full story," said Newton. "But if it was me, I probably would've made sure to stop if a kid says stop. If a kid is in tears, we're going to want to make sure to take them out of that situation."
Lewis agreed, saying that's where things in Denver went wrong.
"I do think if your athlete tells you to stop, you shouldn't push them any further," he said. "Definitely take them out of it. Don't try to force anything they're not willing to do themselves. Mentally they have to be accepting and ready to hit those barriers and if they're telling you no, they're probably not ready for that."
Both coaches said they hope that something positive can come from the incident in Denver. For instance, they say, it might serve as motivation for cheerleading coaches to make sure they're well-trained on the most updated and effective stretching techniques.
"I feel like incidents like this can be avoided if we are truly trained in a way that puts our athletes first," said Lewis. "We're looking to show the world all the positives that come with this sport, and we can't do that without educating ourselves."
Lewis and Newton said they both know the Denver coach, Ozell Williams, but he has never taught at their gym.
KING 5 has learned that Williams did previously teach a clinic at Connect Cheer Northwest in Bellevue. Connect Cheer did not wish to comment on the video out of Denver.