March 17, 2013

Cheerleader rises above losing her leg to cancer

The New Bedford teen inspires others by learning to run, jump and tumble with her prosthetic leg.

By LAURIE LOS The Standard-Times

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.

click image to enlarge

Alexis Morel leads cheers at a boy’s basketball game in New Bedford, Mass., in January. Her abilities surprise many who expect her to be held back by her prosthetic leg.

AP Photo/The Standard-Times/Mike Valeri

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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