Sequoia High School in Redwood, CA has a group of cheerleaders that certainly gets the fans’ attention, thanks in part to an addition to the team that exemplifies school spirit. Angel Gonzalez-Prado is the newest team member. What’s different about Angel is she has spina bifida and cheers from her wheelchair.
There has never been a cheerleader in a wheelchair at Sequoia High School, and the United Spirit Association, which handles the competitions at the state and national level, had never seen one either. Angel didn’t let that stop her from trying out–and making–the squad this year.
Angel has spina bifida, a birth defect in which the spine doesn’t form properly around the spinal cord. She has had more than 15 surgeries to correct the defect, which has left her legs paralyzed. Despite her disability, Angel does all of the upper body and arm movements right along with the squad.
The team’s coach, Stacey Morell, was approached by one of Angel’s friends at the beginning of the year. She was excited to have Angel audition, and noted her bubbly and outgoing personality right off the bat. Morell had to contact the United Spirit Association to find out how to accommodate Angel for competitions, and she was shocked to learn that there had never been a cheerleader in a wheelchair previously.
The association contacted two other national cheerleading associations, and together the three developed rules for competition based on existing rules for cheerleaders with leg braces. For example, the chair must be padded and stationary during competitions for safety reasons.
“I’m still learning how to modify for Angel,” Morell said, “but I want everyone to experience cheerleading. Anyone who has a desire should go for it.”
Angel’s spina bifida surgeon at Stanford’s Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, Dr. Lawrence Rinsky agreed. “The best rehab for her has been going out for cheer,” he said. “She’s such an inspired, motivated young woman.”
Her fan base has grown exponentially, thanks in part to her cousins posting photos of her on social media sites. In addition to cheerleading, Angel stays busy with Girl Scouts, a club for young entrepreneurs and a math-tutoring program at Stanford. She hasn’t gotten used to the attention cheerleading has brought her.
“It’s nerve-racking when everyone’s staring at you,” she said. “They say, ‘There’s a girl in a wheelchair!’ There are a lot of big eyes and shocked faces.”
Angel is becoming a terrific role model. This year the squad participated in Redwood’s 4th of July parade, and a little girl in a wheelchair spotted her and pointed her out to others in the crowd. Each year, the girls on the team have to list who they most respect in a written survey used to choose the cheer captains.
“This year,” Morell said, “a lot of the girls wrote ‘Angel.'”