Wimbledon, Steeped In Tradition, Embraces Artificial Intelligence

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Match highlights at Wimbledon are selected and assembled by robots. Artificial intelligence is used to pick the most dramatic moments, making those judgments by crowd noise and facial expressions.

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Welcome to the High-Flying, High-Risk World of Texas Cheerleading

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Fall can only mean one thing in Texas: football season.

As fans and players enjoy the throes of high school and college football season, many leagues, schools and parents are tackling the threat of concussions with safety-conscious policies like increased concussion testing and mandatory return-to-play protocols.

But research suggests more focus should be given to the athletes on the sidelines as well: cheerleaders.

At the Cheer Athletics Club in Austin, three teenaged girls weave their hands into a basket. A fourth girl — she’s the flyer — jumps into their hands as a coach watches. The girls propel her into the air. She twists twice, scissors her legs and lands in their cradled arms.

The club’s varsity team is perfecting a new move, and this learning stage is the most risky. There are hundreds of aspects in a jump that can go wrong. But usually, the flyer is caught safely by her teammates.

Not everyone is so lucky. According to a 2013 report in the Journal of Pediatrics, cheerleading causes tw0-thirds of all catastrophic injuries in high school girls.

Michael Reardon heads the concussion clinic at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin. He says severe injuries to the spine and neck are relatively rare in cheerleading, but concussions are common and underreported.

“Every month we’ll see a couple of cheerleaders that had a crash and it’s either the flyers who are being thrown up in the air or it’s the people that catch them that end up being injured, so those guys are definitely at risk of concussion,” Reardon said.

A concussion is a type of traumatic injury caused by a blow to the head that shakes the brain inside the skull, but you don’t have to lose consciousness to get one.

Concussions are better tracked in football. The NFL admits that brain trauma affects 1 in 3 players. Those statistics have raised concerns about head injuries in youth sports like football and soccer, but not so much in cheerleading.

Gerald Ladner, a coach at the Cheer Athletics Club, explained how he tests for concussions.

“If the eyes are dilated, I close her eyes,” Ladner said. “I open it up and see and if they dilate even further. If I have a question on it I take her to a dark room, turn the lights off, turn the lights on…I do a finger test to see if she follows the eyes and if her head starts to shake, that’s when we show a little more concern.”

The best way to deal with a concussion is to rest. But that’s easier said than done. Annie Bodenschatz, a 15-year-old cheerleader, sustained a concussion four years ago while practicing for a competition, but she refused to keep herself out of the contest. She didn’t want to let her team down.

“I blacked out for a second and then I had all the symptoms and stuff, but I didn’t go to the doctor until after the competition because I had to compete a few minutes later.”

Reardon said athletes should be fully recovered before playing again.

“If somebody has had a concussion, then doing tumbling and gymnastics becomes very risky in terms of aggravating their symptoms,” Reardon said. “If somebody hasn’t fully recovered and they’re having difficulty with their reaction time or balance or coordination, then there’s significant risks.”

Dawn Comstock researches high school sports injuries at the Colorado School of Public Health. She specifically tracks cheerleading injuries.

“The practice-related injury rate in general and concussion rates more specifically are higher than injury rates in competition or in the case of cheerleading, in performance,” Comstock said.

That’s not the case for the 16 other sports in her data set. Comstock explained why.

“The injuries that are occurring among cheerleaders are occurring on many different surfaces,” Comstock said. “They’re occurring on asphalt, on tile floors, on wood floors, on grass, and if cheerleading isn’t considered a sport in some states, then cheerleaders might not have all the advantages of all the other sports in school.”

Those advantages include proper tumbling mats and qualified coaches. That’s why Bodenschantz didn’t try out for her high school’s team.

“From what I hear, they get hurt a lot because they don’t have very experienced girls,” Bodenschantz said. “They always make them tumble even when they don’t really know how and they don’t really have great coaches teaching them, so I feel like high school cheer is a little scary.”

In Texas, the University Interscholastic League voted this summer to allow cheerleading as a sport, but that classification doesn’t start until next year. At the high school level, schools can’t legally use cheerleading to qualify for Title IX funding, which could potentially bring better equipment.

That doesn’t mean cheerleaders aren’t athletes. Especially at the highest levels of competition where aerial twists, flips and other acrobatics are common, it means they’re at risk.

Latinos Pledge Allegiance To More Than One Soccer Team

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I would never have imagined that my immigrant mom, a Spanish teacher, a proudmexicana, would be cheering for Team USA in the World Cup. A few days ago I overheard her talking to my tía on the phone. She told her sister, “Isn’t it great that the American team is playing so well? Now we have two teams to root for!”

Until then, I didn’t realize cheering for two teams was an option. As a Latina living in the U.S., deciding whom to root for was like answering the question “where are you really from?”

At the start of the World Cup, I was a die-hard Mexico supporter. Two weeks into the 2014 tournament, I feel strangely patriotic about American soccer.

Shifting Allegiances

In the 2006 and 2010 tournaments, I thought of the U.S. team as an opening act and nothing else. They just weren’t fun to root for. Even when they performed relatively well, my American friends hardly seemed to care. In the eyes of a Mexican immigrant, American fútbol fever was disappointingly lukewarm.

When people say soccer is a religion in Mexico, they’re not kidding. If you don’t have an opinion about the state of El Trí, I guarantee that you won’t have anything to talk about for the whole month. Office managers have started throwing World Cup viewing parties in break rooms because they know that if they don’t, everyone will just call in sick anyway. This year, Mexican senators proposed holding off any legislation until after the tournament. Soccer is our special kind of government shutdown.

I believe that history will remember 2014 as the year the United States finally started caring about soccer. I was impressed during the first tournament win against Ghana, but I was hesitant to watch the next game. I was certain that Portugal would knock Team USA out of contention, but I was happy that my American friends were following the game,along with 25 million other Americans. As the game progressed, I tensed up into a tight little ball, stress-eating tortilla chips on the couch. After his first mistake, keeper Tim Howard made save after incredible save. Before the referee called overtime, it looked like Team USA was going to escape the “Group of Death.”

And then, the heartbreaking last minute. That the American team had just broken my heart meant that my allegiance was truly split down the middle. What did this mean about my Mexican-ness? Could I be a part of la raza and cheer for both teams?

I retreated to my bed, scrolling Twitter for other people’s reactions to understand what had just happened. Everybody in my network was in a state of total disbelief. It’s that kind of emotion that makes me love soccer, no matter how it makes me feel.

‘El Equipo De Todos’

My mom’s enthusiasm for the American team makes me think my die-hard Mexico approach has been all wrong. She cheers for whomever she wants to win without worrying about the identity politics. Then again, she has a much simpler answer to “but where are you really from?”

There’s no Latino/Chicano/Tejano/Immigrant team for me to identify with, so who am I really for? It’s a question that I’ve been asking since my family moved to this country in 1996. Back then, I told everyone that one day I would plant the Mexican flag on the moon, but before that, I was going to represent the U.S. as an Olympic rhythmic gymnast. By the 2012 Olympics, I found myself identifying with the independent athletes, competing without a country’s flag.

I asked the Latinos in my network whom they’re cheering for, and the results were pretty mixed. Some root for their family’s country; others just cheer for Team USA because they feel completely American.

Many of them unapologetically cheer for both teams, and they’re the happy majority. Univision is tapping into this double patriotism by referring to the U.S. team as “el equipo de todos” — everybody’s team.

Whether their roots are Mexican, Colombian or Chilean, when a Latino chooses to be a Team USA supporter, the chance of “my team” winning goes up 100 percent. And by alternating between two different jerseys, two different patrias, they’re saying, I’m from here AND I’m from there.

Running Tips From A Latina All-Star

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How do you embark on an adventure? Take it one step at a time!

Next month, Maria Hinojosa is doing something she’s never done before — training for a race! Ahead of her first 5k, we called all-star runner Brenda Martinez for some training tips.

 Photo courtesy of New Balance. 

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At the recent IAAF Track & Field World Championships in Moscow, Brenda Martinez became the first American woman to win a medal in the 800m. She ran her personal best and won the bronze medal. Martinez, 25, is from Rancho Cucamongo, CA and the only Latina on the national track and field team. Martinez started running at five years old and became the first person in her family to go to college when she attended UC-Riverside. She won the 2009 NCAA Outdoor Championship in the 1,500m and was a three-time NCAA All-American. Photo courtesy of Getty Images. 

Rodeo’s Barrel Race Puts Women In The Saddle

The Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is one of the biggest rodeos in the world. Rodeo athletes come from all over the U.S. and Canada to compete for some of the biggest cash purses in the sport. And it’s not just cowboys in the ring. Cowgirls compete in the sport of barrel racing, where they trace a looping pattern on horseback against the clock.

Three empty oil drums are set up in a triangle 60 feet apart. The cowgirl, on horseback, darts out of the gate and runs tight loops around each barrel in a clover-leaf pattern. The turns are so fast that the horse looks like it’s at a 45-degree angle. There’s a five-second penalty for knocking over a barrel. The riders compete one by one, the fastest time wins. It’s fast, and it’s dangerous.

Christy Loflin is a professional barrel racer from Frank Hills, Colorado. She’s wearing jeans tucked into western boots and a black cowboy hat. Loflin got into the sport 14 years ago. She had been showing horses all her life when she met her husband, a professional rodeo athlete. She wanted to compete too. She says it’s hard work. There are long hours and a lot of losses before you get any wins.

She says it takes a tough person to rodeo, “not only do you have to have an amazing horse, but you have to be an amazing rider and be super talented. So, I think that is pretty inspiring to a lot of little girls, to try really hard and to keep come up through the ranks.”

There’s something else Loflin finds inspiring. Rodeo might be a male-dominated sport, but in the ring, women get equal pay. A win in the first round will get you $1200. The grand prize winner walks away with $50,000. That’s the same amount the ropers and bull riders get.

Loflin says it’s a dangerous sport. You can get knocked off your horse, stepped on, it can fall over while you’re still in the saddle. But her hard work just isn’t enough tonight. Her loop around the first barrel was a hair too wide and cost her a few seconds. She placed seventh out of eight. Christy Loflin has two more chances to advance to the finals here, but if she doesn’t make the cut, she can earn money by winning smaller rodeos throughout the year or focusing on her primary source of income: selling horses to other barrel racers.