Courteney's Courage: Competitive Cheerleading Returns After Scoliosis
At age 12, Courteney Belmonte already was a veteran cheerleader. But the flips, twists and other demanding athletic moves she had to execute effortlessly for years suddenly weren't so easy.
A school medical test showed she wasn't able to bend over as far as other students. Her doctor's diagnosis was a shock. Courteney had scoliosis, a deformity often affecting adolescent girls that gradually warps the spine. If it's not corrected, scoliosis causes posture, movement and medical problems.
A long recovery
Surgery can realign the spine, but it's a major operation. Metal rods are affixed to the spinal bones with screws, and bone grafts fuse the vertebrae into their straightened position. Full recovery typically takes a year. While patients often can return to strenuous athletics, it's not a certainty.
"Probably the most difficult aspect for children is the activity restrictions during recovery," said Cleveland Clinic pediatric orthopaedic surgeon Ryan Goodwin, MD, who performed Courteney's more than 12-hour operation in 2008.
The day after surgery, Courteney was up and walking. "At first we thought (her recovery) was going to be slow and painful, but nothing gets her down," said her father Tony. "She refused a lot of help. She said, 'I want to do this on my own.'"
"It was a step-by-step process, and I had to start at some point," Courteney said. Although Dr. Goodwin had told her it probably would probably be a year before she could resume cheerleading, she resolved to make it happen sooner. She worked hard at rehabilitation.
Back to the gym
Six months after Courteney's surgery, her persistence paid off. Dr. Goodwin gave her the green light to return to competitive cheerleading.
The day Courteney got the news, her parents drove her to the gym to join her teammates' practice. "Being back in the gym had never felt like such a relief," she said.
Courteney's determination earned her the 2013 Cleveland Clinic Sports Health Courage Award, presented annually to athlete who has overcome adversity.
"You've just got to remember, keep pushing for what you want," said Courteney, currently a senior at Westlake High School. "It's OK to be scared," but "you should always try."