HER LEFT FOOT GONE, CHEERLEADER CHEERS ON

The doctor said she had two choices: radiate the foot, hope the cancer would die, or cut the foot off and keep the disease from spreading. Beth Hardman looked at her parents. She was 16 years old, a high school student with the smile of an angel, the kind of smile that gets you elected, as she soon would be, Homecoming Princess. And now she had to decide whether to keep a foot. Her Left Foot. They don’t make movies about kids like this. Maybe they should.

“I think we ought to take it off,” Beth told the doctor. “Let’s set up the appointment.”

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Don’t you want to think about it?”

“No,” she said, “if I change my mind, I’ll call you.”

She went to school the next day. She told her cheerleading coach. And then she told the team. They sat in a circle, listening to her words. When she said
“amputated,” her friends began to cry. “They would call me up at night and say, like, ‘No, it can’t be.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, it is.’ “

By the following week, it was.

For a while, after the operation, she wore a cast; she walked on crutches. When classmates would stare at Her Left Foot, she would laugh and say “Hey, I’m up here.” Then, when the cast was removed, she went to soak in the tub and saw the stump for the first time in the bathroom mirror. “I thought I was gonna faint,” she says. “It was like some horror movie.” The next few weeks were tough. Sometimes she would come home from school and drop on the bed and cry.

And then, one day, the crying stopped. Maybe it was this football game in the fall of 1989. As Homecoming Princess, she had to walk out on the field, in front of all her schoolmates, and she was simply determined not to look weak and crippled. She threw away one crutch and hobbled out with the other, in her cheerleading outfit. The crowd applauded. And then she figured, what the heck, and she stood stiff alongside her cheerleading teammates and began to yell, a big smile on her face:

Hey number one fans,

yeah you in the stands!

We wanna hear you,

clap your hands!

Maybe you think cheerleading is silly. Maybe you think Homecoming and letter jackets are queer items of adolescence. But you’re wrong; sometimes, they are a badge of courage. Next weekend, Beth Hardman, now a senior at Sterling Heights, will compete with her teammates for the last time in the State Cheerleading Championships in Saginaw. She will jump. She will spin. She will lunge and do handsprings. All on Her Left Foot.

It’s about time someone clapped for her.
‘It’s no big deal’

“She’s really an incredible story,” says Terri Cassels, the Sterling Heights cheerleading coach. “She wanted to rejoin the team as soon as possible after the operation. I said OK, but I would make her attend every practice, just like the other girls. I wasn’t going to give her special treatment.

“She came all the time, sometimes right after therapy when she was still in pain. She would sit and watch, and at times she got pretty down. I remember when she first showed me what was left of her foot, I had to force myself to say ‘Oh, that’s not bad at all!’ Then I went home and cried my eyes out.”

But things got better. Today, Beth’s Left Foot is a rubberized prosthesis that fits below her ankle. It looks like a foot, flesh colored, has toes and nails. “I even put polish on them,” Beth says.

More than that. She walks. She drives. She plays baseball and basketball. Last year in Florida, she strolled the beach without embarrassment. When you ask about the change in her life, she flashes a smile that could light up a closet. “It’s no big deal,” she says.

No big deal. What gives a high school kid such character? What makes a girl, a child, really, at an age when a pimple on your face is considered unfair punishment from God, mature enough to lose a foot but never a stride?

“When I look back, I don’t even know why I chose to do it,” she says, sitting in the gym after practice, her T-shirt wet with sweat, her hair pulled

in a pony tail. “It’s kind of a blur. Kind of like shock. My parents wanted me to make the decision, because I had to live with it. Chemotherapy wouldn’t work on my kind of cancer. And I guess I felt safer if they took it off, so the cancer couldn’t spread.

“As for my new foot, it’s cool, I can walk around in shorts and stuff. But when I get home, I take the foot off and just walk around natural, with a sock on. It’s easier. And I don’t mind. Everyone in my house is used to it. So are all my friends.”

You ask what makes her so special.

She says, “I’m not special.”

Last Thursday, the Sterling Heights cheerleaders, the defending Class A state champions, gathered to practice for their upcoming competitions. It was a tough afternoon, long and sweaty, like an army drill. They jumped and hopped and dropped and spun and lifted one another on their shoulders. They did jumps that resembled something from a Russian ballet, a scissors kick in mid-air. And all the time they kept giant smiles on their faces, cheering through the pain.

That’s the way to do it,

let’s hear more.

When we yell “Stallions,”

you yell “Score!”

Beth Hardman did every move. Even the Russian jump. She has practiced and worked her muscles until they allow her to excel nearly the way she did before this incident. There are only 12 girls in a competitive cheerleading squad. If one messes up, the team loses points.

Believe me: You would not know, from watching the Sterling Heights squad, that only 23 of the 24 feet were natural.

“Beth coming back,” says Cassels, “it wasn’t just a victory for her. It was like a victory for all of us.”

We hear so many comeback stories in sports, but they often involve professional athletes, guys with big money in the bank, guys who have TV cameras film their rehab. Rarely do we hear about the simple courage an active

teenager can show. It’s our loss.

“What have you learned from all this?” Beth Hardman is asked.

“Think positive,” she says, looking down at her foot. “You can take any situation and make it better by bringing yourself up.”

Spoken, you might say, like a true cheerleader. Isn’t it strange how life sometimes picks on the young — and even stranger how well they handle it? This weekend, in Saginaw, one brave teenager and Her Left Foot will show the judges how well she can cheer for other people — when really it should be the other way around.

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