Calhoun cheerleader finds power of being herself
PORT LAVACA -- The entire gymnasium of Calhoun High School reverberated as the drumline pounded out a beat.
On the wooden floor, Allie Gonzales, 17, tapped her small white tennis shoes, rocking on the balls of her feet, as if the excitement could barely be contained in her body.
She stood there, waiting as the students flooded through the halls and into the gymnasium.
Without her uniform, the first thing you might notice about Allie is her height -- at barely 4 feet tall, the other cheerleaders tower over her -- but in the black and white uniform trimmed in gold, she was a cheerleader.
Her face was blank during the run-through before the students were set to arrive. She moved carefully through the routine, making sure her motions were right, that she was standing in the right place, that all her hours of practice had paid off.
Then the students began to arrive and a smile beamed from her face.
Allie knew that her ponytail of auburn hair was piled securely on top of her head, molded by a cloud of hair spray.
Her uniform fit perfectly and her makeup, complete with glitter, was flawless. She was ready for this.
Her parents, Chris and Christina Gonzales, never coddled their youngest daughter, the last of four children.
Allie's grandmother noticed that there was something different about her when she was an infant. Consulting doctors, they learned that she had achondroplasia, a genetic dwarfism that results in shorter arms and legs. Allie's head and torso grew at a normal rate, while her limbs stayed small, child-sized. Learning this, her parents made a decision not to tell her she was different.
Allie wasn't coddled.
In fact, as the youngest, her brothers and sister treated her the way the youngest sibling usually gets treated. Within the world of the family, she was just Allie. But things weren't that simple in the outside world.
Her older sister, Ariel, was always on the lookout for people staring at her sister. She'd glare at the curious stares, setting her jaw and crossing her arms as she stepped into their line of vision, cutting between the line of vision, daring them to try and move to get another look.
Allie would walk along through the store or the restaurant or wherever they were, oblivious to the looks, but Ariel knew.
As a kid, Allie's size didn't matter much in the elementary school days, when everyone was small. At the beginning of her sixth-grade year, everything changed. She was in middle school now, surrounded for the first time by students who hadn't known her since kindergarten. She would catch them staring.
Suddenly, her size mattered. Over the summer puberty had hit and her friends were growing like weeds, towering over her as they stopped to say hello in the hallways.
One afternoon, her mother found her parked in front of the computer, searching for information about herself.
"Hey, Mom, it says that one in 25,000 people are born with this," she told her mother. "One in 25,000. I guess I'm just one of those."
She hated how she stood out in her new school. The other kids, people she didn't know, had never spoken to, would call to her in the hallways, would say hello in the grocery store.
Her mom told her to be nice, to remember that people noticed her and that she needed to be polite. From then on, Allie tried to smile and say "hi" back when strangers called her by name.
Her brothers and sister played sports all through school, so she followed in their footsteps and tried out for the volleyball team in seventh grade. At the end of the year, she realized that she wouldn't be tall enough for the team the next year, so she looked around for something else to do.
And she had an idea. She would be a cheerleader.
Maybe her parents had their doubts. Her mom thought Allie was just going through a phase. They both hoped she wouldn't get hurt - she wouldn't be able to jump and tumble the way the others girls would because her joints experience more pain and her spine can break more easily because of her condition.
At the audition, she blew the judges away. Her smile, her presence, her motions - she was a natural. She made the team, and, putting on her cheerleading uniform, her life changed.
During these auditions, it isn't necessarily the girl who can do backflips and one-handed cartwheels that will earn a spot on the team. Judges pay attention to form, but it's a certain charisma that really draws them, that elusive quality that makes a crowd fasten their eyes on a person, so that they feel her joy and find themselves clapping and cheering along with her.
Allie had that quality, Erin Muil, the cheerleading coach for Calhoun High School, said. She wowed the judges.
Allie was hooked. She spent hours practicing with the other girls, learning the routines and the dances so that when they performed at pep rallies and football games, they were a perfect unit, moving as one.
Standing before the crowds, she was a part of something bigger than herself. Standing in front of the crowd, she wasn't just little, she was Allie, the cheerleader.
Finally, people in school would know her for something she could do better than anyone else.
It wasn't a phase. She tried out in high school and made the team. At first, her coaches weren't sure what she could do, what place she would have on the team, but she always carved out her own spot. On the field or in front of the student body, her smile was like a spotlight in the crowd.
"Her jumps were perfect. She wasn't as high up off the ground, but they were perfect," her mother Christina Gonzales said.
She made the team every year and made the All-American Cheerleading team as well, competing with girls across the country.
On the floor, Allie started out in the center, tipping her head back to make her voice carry. Her parents, brothers and sister clapped and applauded from the front row, cheering as she jumped and danced and smiled, waving her hands at the crowd.
Her sister doesn't have to protect Allie now, Ariel said.
"I'm proud of her," she said. "She's not shy. She doesn't hide behind anything. I'm so proud of her."
As the students settled into their bleacher seats, Allie and her teammates walked across the gleaming varnished floor of the gym.
This is her last homecoming pep rally. Allie will graduate in the spring and go on to University of Houston where she plans to study to become a pharmacist, a job where she'll be able to make good money and take care of herself.
But for now, this is the moment she lives for, standing in front of a crowd, tipping her head back so her voice carries to the back of the gymnasium.
Her father swiped at tears as the girls finished their routine and students began filing out of the gym.
"Some kids will never have this experience, but she'll have these Friday Night Lights memories forever," he said. "I'm so proud. I can't find words to say it."