Denver Cheerleading Coach Under Investigation Was Also Fired from Previous Job for Forcing Splits
The Denver high school cheerleading coach at the center of a police investigation after video surfaced of him forcing cheerleaders into painful splits was let go from his previous job for the very same reason.
Ozell Williams, who was recently placed on leave from East High School when the incident made headlines, also had his services discontinued as a cheerleading consultant with Boulder High School last year, PEOPLE confirms. Williams helped Boulder High coaches during the 2015 fall semester, intermittently teaching tumbling and choreography, and was briefly brought back in 2016 for a four-day summer cheerleading camp. He was fired on the third day of the camp after he was observed using the controversial splits practice.
“One of our coaches had gotten a complaint in terms of the technique being used,” Randall Barber, director of communications for Boulder Valley School District, tells PEOPLE. “When one of the assistant coaches observed him using the technique in camp, they discontinued his services with the school.”
The 28-year-old, who also runs the youth program, Mile High Tumblers Foundation, claims to be an Olympic athlete on the organization’s website, but a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee refutes that claim, saying they have no record of medals or wins tied to Williams’ name.
“He is not named on an Olympic roster, he is not named as an athlete or an alternate within the last five to ten games,” a spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee tells PEOPLE. “We have no record of him being on an Olympic team. USA Gymnastics also does not have a record of him being on an Olympic team or even being invited to an Olympic trial event. That is confirmed.”
The disturbing video featuring a 13-year-old Colorado cheerleader being forced into splits by Williams prompted almost a half-dozen school officials to be placed on leave. The video, reportedly filmed during Denver’s East High School cheer camp in June, shows incoming-freshman, Ally Wakefield, being held down into a splits position by fellow cheerleaders and her recently-hired coach, Williams. Wakefield excruciatingly yells “please, stop!” multiple times in the video as Williams pushes her down further by her shoulders.
Jim Lord, the executive director of the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators spoke with PEOPLE after the release of the shocking video.
Lord, who has been involved in the cheerleading community since 1984 and is a former captain for the University of Kentucky cheer squad, says the painful practice that Williams uses in the video is not commonplace in the cheerleading world.
“I was appalled when I saw the video, it is really hard to watch beyond the first few seconds,” Lord tells PEOPLE. “It’s pretty clear this girl is in a lot of pain, and she is specifically asking them to stop. It should have immediately ended at that point.”
Lord believes that Williams may have learned his approach from older overstretching techniques used in ballet and gymnastics. But overstretching to the point of discomfort (and incorporating a “no pain, no gain” philosophy toward cheerleading) should not be applied or accepted, he says.
“Hopefully, this controversy will make it clear that this is both an archaic technique and mentality that has been debunked,” he explains. “Anyone who thinks this is okay because it’s the way they were trained, well, that’s not a reason to continue doing something, and we know better now.”
Lord says that proper splits technique uses progressive improvements over time, rather than large advancements in a single session.
“Stretch slow and methodically, and you’ll increase and improve your stretching,” he explains. “It’s not something you force. The type of techniques taught in clinics around the country never includes forcing someone to the point of pain.”
Cheerleader Ally Wakefield’s mother, Kirsten Wakefield, sent an email on June 15 to the East High School athletic director regarding the incident. The email explained that a doctor who examined Ally said she experienced torn muscle tissue and damaged ligaments in her leg, as well as a pulled hamstring, as a result of being forced into the splits. The doctor advised Ally to see a physical therapist after the visit.
“This is a grown man pushing my 13-year old girl so hard against her will while she’s crying and screaming for him to stop, that he’s ripping tissue in her body,” Kirsten told KUSA. “I don’t understand why this man is still employed there.”
If Williams had incorporated proper technique, those injuries could have been avoided, Lord says.
“If there is any good to come out of this, if there are coaches, athletes, or parents that still think this is acceptable, they’ll now understand it’s not,” Lord says. “If a parent or cheerleader feel they’re being asked to do something that isn’t right, they should address it with a coach. If it’s not addressed properly, they should bring it up with their administration. We hope people continue to speak up and realize this type of training is not okay.”