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Ex UT cheerleader gives shout out to fitness

Pam LeBlanc
pleblanc@statesman.com

In honor of tonight's national championship game between the University of Texas and Alabama, a word about a former Texas Longhorn cheerleader ...

Pam Merker cheered for the Longhorns for three years, starting in 1977. That's her in the photo, at age 20. And her wearing the same uniform at age 50.

Pretty amazing, no?

Merker wrote me earlier this week to tell me about her cheerleading days, when she'd tear across the field in a series of 10 back handsprings every time UT scored.

"That first year, (I) did hundreds of flips to fire up the Longhorn fans because Heisman Trophy winner Earl Campbell was scoring lots of touchdowns," she wrote. The Longhorns went 10-0 in 1977, and Merker cheered in the national championship game between Texas and Notre Dame. (The Irish, led by Joe Montana, won the game 38-10.)

Merker, 51, will be watching the game Thursday night from her Fort Worth home. She wants you to know that she can still do 10 back handsprings across a football field. In fact, she has a mat-covered practice room set up next to her den, where she also teaches tumbling classes.

"I practice what I preach," she says. "Being so strong, flexible and fit has been my lifestyle since I was a little girl. I have done basic exercises my entire life and I want to be a motivator for children, as well as adults, to get excited about being active and healthy."

Merker was a competitive athlete most of her life. She was a tumbler and ran track growing up, earning a track scholarship to the University of Texas. She won the Collegiate State Pentathlon championship in 1977. After college, she competed in body building. At age 38, she was third runner-up in the Ms. Fitness America Pageant.

She began suffering chronic back pain in her late 40s and was diagnosed with a degenerative disc. Today she does daily stretching exercises to keep back pain at bay.

"This daily 10 minutes has made such a difference in the way my body feels for the rest of the day," she says. " I have taught my students to do two basic exercises in their beds first thing in the morning and to also show their parents so the whole family can get into the habit, just like brushing your teeth."

To do the first exercise, lie on your back and roll up, using your arms and reaching forward into a pike. Hold the pike a few seconds and roll slowly back down. Shoot for 10 roll-ups.

To do the second exercise, lie on your stomach with your hands by your chest and push your upper body up into an arch, straightening your arms like a half pushup. Your legs should be straight and hips should remain on the bed. Try to do 25.

Both of the exercises combine strength and flexibility.

"Doing them in your bed is more comfortable — like having your own big, padded exercise mat," she says. "And just think — when you get out of bed in the morning, you have already knocked out a great mini-workout!"