One catastrophic knee injury can end, or shorten, or at least hamper, a cheerleader's career.
Suffering that fate again, as Cat Haley learned, may leave you in an orthopedic surgeon's office listening to words such as "permanent damage" and "quality of life."
Why not just quit? Leave gracefully?
Ha, good one. You're talking to someone whose parents, Sandy and Bruce, once transported her from Minot to Massachusetts multiple times per week to foster her development in the sport. Somebody who estimates that she routinely spent more than 30 hours per week in a cramped, humid gymnasium every summer, at the height of her career, while teenage friends trekked to the beach by the thousands.
"I compare it to walking down a street," Haley said. " You're going to trip and fall down on the sidewalk once in a while, but you have to get back up."
While most would settle for walking, or perhaps running and tumbling for a little bit longer, Haley chose to climb a figurative mountain. And because of that, the 19-year-old concluded her career — OK, with the door cracked open ever-so-slightly — at the peak of her sport.
Haley has etched her name on that strikingly short list of Maine-born-and-raised athletes who may call themselves a world champion.
She achieved that status in April while competing with her Marietta, Georgia-based squad, the Stingray Allstars, in the Cheerleading Worlds, held at ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla.
"It still hasn't really hit me yet," Haley said recently while home on a three-week summer vacation. "It was a 13-year dream that finally came true."
There were nightmares, or at least major speed bumps, along the route.
Prior to hoisting the elusive trophy, Haley three times competed with Maine teams at the world showcase. Each time she and her squads were content to be there. On every occasion, she was either unable to perform or barely recovered from reconstructive knee surgery.
"I wanted to go and be able to compete and actually have a shot at winning," Haley said.
Although it is difficult to quantify the risks of that goal, suffice it to say they were enormous.
Haley tore her anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus during a tumbling pass at her home gym, Planet Cheer of Lewiston, in 2009.
While tumbling in a summer cheering clinic at the University of Louisville in 2011, she sustained a second ACL tear.
Between the reconstructions and secondary clean-up procedures, Haley underwent four surgeries in all. Still several months shy of adulthood, she was confronted with the what-ifs at the final post-operative consultation.
"The first time, even though it was disappointing, I knew I could definitely make a comeback," Haley said. "The second time my surgeon told me I absolutely could not tear my ACL again. It's always in the back of my mind. It's made me a better athlete in the end. I'm a little more careful with technique."
While her senior year at Poland Regional High School was a rousing success — Haley served in student government and finished in the top 10 percent of her class — she struggled on the mat.
Her Planet Cheer Galaxy team made its third trip to Worlds, but Haley, still recovering physically and emotionally, did not perform up to her own standards.
It may have impacted her college choice. Having set her sights on Louisville since elementary school, Haley chose Kennesaw State University in Georgia, in part for its proximity to the Stingray gym.
"The gym is the most prestigious in the country," she said. "They've won almost 650 national titles."
Haley's team practiced and competed from November to March in preparation for Worlds.
Twenty-two teams performed in their division.
"We were given a run for our money," Haley said.
But win, the Rays did, ending a journey that began when Haley was six years old.
"It came pretty easily to me," she said. "I always found myself watching videos, working on my tumbling in the grass or wherever I could."
Don White and Matt Hanley were Haley's youth tumbling coaches. The sister coaching duo of Deneka Deletetsky and Tiffany LeBrun of Fortier Family Cheer Center provided constant guidance.
White, a former teacher and longtime coach at Edward Little High School, tried to lure Bruce Haley into gymnastics in the 1970s.
Alas, Bruce's passion was auto racing. He was a champion in the 1980s at Oxford Plains Speedway.
"I definitely owe my athleticism to my dad," she said.
Ever the student of the game, Haley concedes that her body probably wasn't designed for the constant strain of elite cheerleading. She believes those summers when she turned the sport into a 9-to-5 job contributed to the knee injuries.
It hasn't stopped her from following cheerleading as a career path. Since winning the world championship, Haley has gone full-throttle into teaching at both the suburban Atlanta and Lewiston gyms.
"I'm still trying to figure that all out," Haley said. "I'm a college student first and foremost, and of course my degree is very important to me."
How about defending that world title?
"I'm pretty content with being retired," she said.
Yes, there is something to be said for going out on your own terms. Especially when you're on top of the world.