NEW BEDFORD, Mass. – Dressed in yoga pants and a T-shirt, Greater New Bedford Voc-Tech junior Alexis Morel was determined to show her new cheerleading coach exactly what she could do on the first day of tryouts last August.
She ran. She jumped. She tumbled. She even did a back handspring.
Then Morel changed from long pants to shorts, exposing her prosthetic left leg to the surprise of Sara Aiello.
“I would have never picked her out of a crowd,” said the first-year coach before a recent night’s girls basketball game.
That’s the first impression Morel wanted to make.
“I don’t want to be treated differently,” the 16-year-old amputee said before crossing her right leg over her prosthetic while sitting on the bleachers at GNB Voc-Tech. “I don’t know if I feel like a normal teenage girl because I don’t know how that is.
“At first, (the prosthetic) was kind of awkward, but now it feels like it’s more a part of me. Now it seems so natural, like it was supposed to happen.”
Morel’s life forever changed nearly three years ago when doctors found a tumor on her left leg and diagnosed her with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer most commonly found in children.
A 13-year-old Morel went through weeks of chemotherapy — 36 to be exact — but the cancer in her leg had progressed too far and she needed to get it amputated below the knee or have bone graft replacement.
“When she made the choice to do the amputation instead of the fake bone put in her leg, she wanted to be able to always do sports and be active,” said Morel’s mother, Julie. “She said ‘I want to do this because I want to be normal again. I want to be me.’ And that’s what she’s done.”
Since Morel didn’t know if she’d ever be able to cheer again, on the day of her surgery she did what she thought at the time would be her final back handspring.
“That day they said ‘No tumbling’ and I said ‘I want to try it one last time,’” she recalled.
Soon after Morel’s chemotherapy ended on Feb. 13, 2011, she was determined to cheer again.
“I stopped chemo in February and I did a back handspring in June,” she said proudly.
Morel and the rest of the Bears were set to compete recently at the Winter Cheerleading South Regionals at Whitman-Hanson after finishing third at the South Coast Conference meet.
It was a long road for Morel to get here.
First, she needed to learn how to walk with a prosthetic. Then she learned to run and jump. Now Morel is able to do nearly everything required of a high school cheerleader.
“I have no limitations,” she said. “I can do anything I put my mind to.”
Morel spends most of her time cheerleading as a base, providing support for the flyer during a stunt, but she can still fly, something she did a lot of with the American All-Stars based in Seekonk before she became an amputee.
“She’s an amazing base, but there was one day when we were all joking around and I was like ‘It would be awesome to have Lexy fly’ and she said ‘I can fly,’” recalled Aiello. “She grabbed three bases and jumped into a stunt. I’m like ‘Wow, that was unexpected.’ With basing, she’s on the ground, but flying I didn’t think she would do. But she just jumped up there like it was nothing. Nothing shocks me anymore with her.”
The one thing Morel has found difficult to do is knee spins on the floor, but it hasn’t stopped her from trying over and over.
“She’s tried it so many times, but she just can’t do it,” Aiello said. “Once in a while, she’ll say ‘I physically cannot do that,’ but she doesn’t use her leg as an excuse.”
Sometimes it hurts Morel to run long distances, but she does it and pays the price after practice with swelling, bruises and irritation on her leg.
“If I have a long day at practice, my leg will really swell the next day. In the morning, it can be difficult,” she said. “If my leg sweats a lot, the rubbing from my liner and my leg in the socket, it can cause an irritation.”
But for Morel, it’s all worth it.
“Cheerleading is my life,” she said. “It’s really important to me. I missed so much before (because of the cancer) so now that’s all I want to do.”
When Morel returned to cheerleading, her mom’s biggest concern was that she wouldn’t be treated the same as others.
“I just hoped that she didn’t get disqualified for being disabled or that they would look at her differently,” Julie Morel said. “She’s been able to do more than others that have tried out because she’s been a cheerleader since she was a little girl. I didn’t have any doubt. I was just hoping she was going to make it and they weren’t going to judge her differently because she’s an amputee now.”
Because part of her prosthetic leg is metal, Morel must cover it with an ace bandage and wrap it in gold duct tape at competitions.
This made her feel uncomfortable, so her teammates decided to wear a gold strip on their legs as well.
“Everybody had a gold strip on their legs so the judges asked ‘What’s that?’ and I said ‘Because we have one girl that has to do it, then the whole team is going to do it,’” Aiello said. “It worked out well that the color for her cancer was gold and our school color is gold.”
Earlier this season at another competition, Aiello overheard a judge saying to someone that having Morel tape her prosthetic leg was not a big deal because “she’s not going to be doing too much anyway.”
“I just looked behind me and shook my head,” said Aiello. “Then the first thing Lexy did was a running tumbling pass and they were like ‘Holy crap, maybe she can do a lot.’ People are thrown by her. They don’t expect her to do anything.”
The most challenging part for Morel is when people stare at her.
“I’m fine if you ask me about my leg, but I don’t like when people stare,” said Morel, adding that she understands how her cheerleading can be an inspiration to others.
“The way she approaches the whole thing, it’s inspiring,” said Aiello. “So many people would have taken that situation and made it ‘woe is me’ and not gone back to what they love and she didn’t. She just has so much spirit.”
Although Morel has experienced some dark days, she’s been able to have a bright attitude, knowing that one day things would get better.
On a visit to the doctor recently, she found out that for now at least, she’s cancer-free.
“The doctor said she has no limits,” Julie Morel said. “She can jump. She can run. She can do anything. Her blood is good. She’s normal again, which is awesome.”