WSU cheer­leader over­comes se­vere joint ail­ment

The Wichita Eagle - - Front Page - BY TAY­LOR ELDRIDGE [email protected]­chi­taea­

Stand­ing in a line on the base­line at Koch Arena, Carli McCloud, a Wi­chita State sopho­more ma­jor­ing in ex­er­cise sci­ence, is in­con­spic­u­ous next to the rest of the WSU spirit squad.

There’s no way to tell that five years ago, McCloud was di­ag­nosed with os­teo­chon­dri­tis dis­se­cans, a de­gen­er­a­tive joint dis­or­der in her left el­bow. McCloud, a North New­ton na­tive, was a su­perb gym­nast at the time and had just won the Kansas all-around state ti­tle, but doc­tors told her that she no longer had a fu­ture in ath­let­ics.

Tues­day’s women’s bas­ket­ball game at Koch Arena was by all ac­counts a per­fectly nor­mal event, but to McCloud, it rep­re­sented a per­sonal tri­umph. She has over­come the odds, and her come­back story was cho­sen to lead a re­cent Chil­dren’s Mercy Hospi­tal mar­ket­ing cam­paign, as McCloud’s face and story were seen on bill­boards and signs around Kansas.

“I’ve gone through it and I’ve re­ally ex­pe­ri­enced what it’s like to think you’re hav­ing some­thing taken away from you,” McCloud said. “It re­ally put ev­ery­thing in per­spec­tive. To give your best ev­ery day and not com­plain on the bad days be­cause you know that it could be taken away like that. I learned to not take any­thing for granted.”

When McCloud was 3, she was al­ready climb­ing on top of couch arms and per­form­ing som­er­saults. It was clear to her mother, Vonna McCloud, that some­thing had to be done.

“We put her in gym­nas­tics be­cause we thought it would get rid of all that en­ergy,” Vonna McCloud said. “It didn’t re­ally help. In­stead, she just got in bet­ter shape.”

By the time Carli was 10, she was train­ing 20 hours a week at Folger’s Gym­nas­tics in An­dover. When she was 13, the train­ing in­creased to 24 hours a week, but she was also hav­ing the most suc­cess of her ca­reer. That year she won the Level 8,

13-year-old di­vi­sion state all-around ti­tle at the U.S. Gym­nas­tics state meet in Wi­chita.

Not long after, Carli started feel­ing an nag­ging pain in her left el­bow. She trained with the in­jury for three months, think­ing the pain would even­tu­ally sub­side. It never did and in­stead, the pain in­ten­si­fied.

“Some­thing al­ways hurt with her, but we would ask if she needed to go to the doc­tor and she would say, ‘No, it’s not in­jured, it just hurts,’” Vonna said.

“Fi­nally, it got to be too much and we had to go see a doc­tor,” Carli said.

Her or­tho­pe­dist orig­i­nally di­ag­nosed her with Pan­ner’s Dis­ease, a bone con­di­tion linked to overuse. It is a rare con­di­tion, but Carli was ex­pected to make a full re­cov­ery. That is un­til the el­bow showed no im­prove­ment after four months in a sling.

She was re­ferred to Chil­dren’s Mercy Kansas City, where or­tho­pe­dic sur­geon Donna Paci­cca dis­cov­ered that Carli ac­tu­ally had os­teo­chon­dri­tis dis­se­cans and could no longer pur­sue gym­nas­tics — or any ath­let­ics.

“She burst into tears and just sobbed and sobbed and sobbed,” Vonna said.

“I try to be very re­al­is­tic. En­cour­ag­ing, but re­al­is­tic,” Paci­cca said. “I know what it takes to come back from these type of in­juries. It’s a long road. I didn’t know if that was some­thing she was will­ing to do, so I started out giv­ing her the worstcase sce­nario.”

That worst-case sce­nario didn’t work for Carli.

“I was dev­as­tated be­cause all of my as­pi­ra­tions at the time were to do col­lege gym­nas­tics, and I wanted to go D-I and get a full-ride schol­ar­ship,” Carli said. “I started when I was 3 and I worked my whole child­hood to be that, then they told I wasn’t go­ing to be able to do that. I was like, ‘All of that work, all of that money, all of the driv­ing and the sac­ri­fices, ... and I have to be done?’

“I just thought I’d rather be done on my own terms.”

Paci­cca was taken aback by Carli’s de­ter­mi­na­tion, so she promised to work closely with her in the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion work.

The pro­ce­dure couldn’t fully re­pair Carli’s el­bow be­cause so much of the car­ti­lage was miss­ing. The only road back for Carli was strength­en­ing the mus­cles sup­port­ing the joint. So be­gan a gru­el­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion where Carli worked three hours a day in ther­apy and saw Paci­cca reg­u­larly.

After one year, Carli re­turned to gym­nas­tics and came back stronger than be­fore. In her first year back, Carli achieved Level 10 sta­tus, the high­est level in the USA Gym­nas­tics Ju­nior Olympics pro­gram.

“It’s nice to have your par­ents telling you that you can do it, but it’s just dif­fer­ent when you have some­one who ac­tu­ally per­formed the surgery who was telling me I could do it,” Carli said. “She be­lieved in me and re­ally men­tored me all the way through it. She’s very in­spi­ra­tional to me.

“I don’t even know what I would be do­ing with­out (Paci­cca). I’d prob­a­bly just be go­ing to school some­where.”

“Carli had to work back from a pretty sig­nif­i­cant in­jury, but she al­ways had a re­ally great at­ti­tude,” Paci­cca said. “Part of it was I would give her these lit­tle chal­lenges each time. I would throw out a lit­tle some­thing she could do and she rose to the oc­ca­sion ev­ery sin­gle time. She would al­ways sur­pass what I asked of her.”

Carli said she even­tu­ally be­came burned out on gym­nas­tics and de­cided to stop pur­su­ing a fu­ture in the sport in high school, but she missed the com­pet­i­tive hole it left in her life. She soon rec­og­nized that her abil­i­ties could trans­fer to com­pet­i­tive cheer­lead­ing. She be­gan tak­ing pri­vate les­sons and joined the WSU team in the spring se­mes­ter this year.

“We’re in­cred­i­bly proud of her and ev­ery­thing she has over­come,” Vonna said. “We’re so happy she’s found cheer­lead­ing be­cause when she fi­nally quit gym­nas­tics, it was such a huge part of her. She was a lit­tle bit adrift there. She needed some­thing to fun­nel that pas­sion into and she fi­nally tried co-ed stunt­ing and she ab­so­lutely loves it.”

Be­ing a cheer­leader was not some­thing Carli ever imag­ined for her­self.

But after be­ing told she couldn’t do some­thing, she was de­ter­mined to prove that she could. Even though it wasn’t the path she orig­i­nally thought, Carli is proud to have over­come the odds.

“I’m hon­estly so glad that the in­jury hap­pened,” she said. “It made me grow and made me a bet­ter per­son and ath­lete and it has re­ally helped me with my back­ground here in cheer­lead­ing. Now I’m able to cheer at a D1 school for a D1 bas­ket­ball team. It’s just re­ally amaz­ing.”


Carli McCloud is a sopho­more ex­er­cise sci­ence ma­jor on the Wi­chita State cheer­lead­ing team. She was once told by doc­tors that an in­jury would pre­vent her from gym­nas­tics, but she un­der­took gru­el­ing re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and was able to re­turn to the sport.

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