Thirty years on, a search for a cheerleader’s photo

Janis Thompson is being inducted into the North Dakota High School Track and Field Hall of Fame next month. She was a top sprinter.

She was also a cheerleader whose death at North Dakota State in 1986 made schools take another look at the stunts cheerleaders were attempting.
She died during a practice of a human pyramid when her head hit the floor while attempting a leaping dismount from the top of a three-tier pyramid. Two cheerleaders below were supposed to catch her.

The New York Times reported…

At the time of the accident, university officials say, 16 spotters, including members of the varsity basketball team had been stationed around the pyramid. It was an apparent extra precaution that may actually have contributed to the accident in part because the basketball players had no training as spotters and in part because there were so many of them they may have gotten in each other’s way when Miss Thompson unexpectedly veered to the side when she began her dismount.

”Basketball players have no business serving as spotters,” said Linda Bell, the Syracuse cheerleading coach, who said she devoted the first half hour of her practices to correct spotting techniques such as the need for preplanned coordinated action by the spotters and the need to grab a falling cheerleader around the chest – never the legs – to assure proper leverage in breaking a fall.

According to North Dakota State officials, some of the 16 spotters did manage to get their hands on Miss Thompson as she fell, but they caught only her legs and lower torso, allowing the back of her unprotected head to slam into the floor.

This all came at a time when cheerleading was starting to be recognized as an athletic endeavor.

Her family knows, of course, that nothing can bring her back, but they’re asking the Internet to do that thing the Internet still does so well — find someone who has a picture of her, Fargo Forum reports today.

“If there’s any new fresh image, any story, it brings her back to us,” her sister, Sue, tells Forum’s Jeff Kolpack. “It just makes us feel so good to relive our memory of her.”

Sue says it was 20 years before she could watch cheerleaders attempt the pyramid again.

Kolpack was a student reporter covering the tragedy in 1986.

“To this day, when sitting courtside covering basketball games, it’s still unsettling to watch a cheerleader stand on her partner’s shoulders and although Janis’ image doesn’t immediately come to mind, she is the reason why,” he writes.

Janis had quit the cheerleading squad at North Dakota State. She was concerned about safety.

Her sister says the last words she recalls Janis saying were that she was going back, but didn’t know why.