WSU cheerleader once told her career was over overcomes the odds
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, 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 per week at Folger’s Gymnastics in Andover. When she was 13, the training increased to 24 hours per week, but Carli 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. Carli trained with the injury for three months, believing 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.
Carli’s orthopaedist originally diagnosed her with Panner’s Disease, a bone condition linked to overuse. It was 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.
Carli was referred to Children’s Mercy Kansas City, where orthopedic surgeon Donna Pacicca discovered 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 worst-case 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 three 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 per 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 burnt out on gymnastics and decided to stop pursuing a future in the sport in high school, but missed the competitive hole it left in her life. She soon recognized her abilities could translate 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, Carli 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,” Carli 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.”