VNL Investigates: More cheerleaders claim abuse at the hands of former NDSU cheer coach

Published: Nov. 22, 2022 at 8:04 PM CST
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FARGO, N.D. (Valley News Live) - After the resignation of former North Dakota State University cheer coach Verona Winkler, more and more cheerleaders have come forward with more allegations. This investigation started in late August when we received a message into our whistleblower hotline claiming that Winkler coaches with emotional and verbal abuse.

In 2018, a group of cheerleaders at NDSU spoke out against Winkler, claiming physical, emotional and verbal abuse.

“Everyone was just really scared of her the entire time.” said Chani Tretbar, a former NDSU cheerleader from 2015-18.

“I really thought when my teammates went in and had their exit interviews and told them everything the next year would be so much better and we would have such a good energy and culture and instead we were told our teammates lied and our teammates were not honest in their exit interviews.” said Allie Bolin, a NDSU former cheerleader from 2017-19.

Ricky Paulson, who was a NDSU cheerleader from 2016-18, had a hip contusion and given a doctor’s note for the injury. He said that Winkler did not care about the injury, and forced him to perform during a basketball game.

“I thought I was just going to be on the sidelines and not have to do anything,” said Paulson. “But when she called on me to get into the pyramid and we were just all a little astonished and not just having to have somebody on top of my shoulders, but having to throw them up there. That’s a lot of torque. It was definitely painful having to do that.”

In 2009, Stephanie Vickhammer was a student-athlete and was in Winkler’s cheer program. She said that Winkler wouldn’t allow them to see the athletic training staff when they had injuries, an allegation that many other former cheerleaders made.

“Just didn’t sit right with me seeing how many injuries were happening and not being able to see the athletic training staff because I honestly think she didn’t want the documentation of the amount injuries that were happening.” said Vickhammer.

Vickhammer said she spoke with the athletic dept., but nothing came from that. The NDSU athletic dept. on numerous occasions denied knowing about these allegations. However, a former cheerleader provided us a recorded 2018 phone call between a former cheerleader and associate athletic director Colleen Heimstead.

“Well we did meet with Verona about your concerns.” said Heimstead in a recorded phone call. “I can’t imagine she’s benching you because you came to see us.”

Chani Tretbar was another one of the cheerleaders that spoke out against Winkler in 2018. She said she suffered numerous instances of emotional and verbal abuse at the hands of Winkler. Which led to her struggling with her mental health.

“Tried starving myself, and that just didn’t do it for her,” said Tretbar, who was a NDSU cheerleader from 2015-18. “Unfortunately, I went to the only other thing I could control which was causing external pain on myself to take away from stuff that I couldn’t control with my performance. Really it was a destructive outlet to try and cope.”

“I’m not afraid of her, I’m not. She can’t touch me,” said Alaina Werlinger, a NDSU cheerleader from 2019-21. “I have a great job, I have a great boyfriend, I’m living in a house, I have two dogs. My parents are on my side, my sister is on my side. Nobody is on her side that I care about and she ruined my college athletics experience and she’s ruined it for so many other people and she deserves what’s coming to her.”

“She had every opportunity to change the way she acts, every opportunity to change and become a better coach and I just wish she would have done that sooner for the rest of us.” said Bolin.

We went to Winkler’s home to give her an opportunity to give her side of the story. Despite people being inside the home, no one answered the door. We have also reached out to the NDSU athletic dept. for interviews about these allegations.