NORTH TAMPA — Forget what you think you know about cheerleading. You probably know it's a sport. It's competitive. Dangerous, even.
Now meet a high school cheerleader who's made of steel.
Bri Keenan, 15, just had hip surgery in New York. A doctor broke her bones in several places to reposition the sockets in her pelvis.
All so she doesn't have to give up sports — namely, cheerleading.
"Even when they tell you you can't do it, it makes you want to do it even more," Bri said from her Westchase home as she prepared for the March 23 surgery.
Like a lot of kids in high school, Bri knows what she wants and is determined to have it. Lucky for her, she has parents who share her determination.
Support came from the cheerleading community as well.
"A lot of moms said to me, 'Don't ever let anyone tell you that your kid can't do something,' " said Cynthia Keenan, Bri's mother.
A relative latecomer to the sport, Bri got started about two years ago and rose through the ranks of the Tumble Tech competitive program.
She had tried other activities — dance, golf, softball. "When I did dance, I liked performing in front of people," she said.
"But that wasn't challenging for me. I like doing stuff that's challenging."
Cheerleading competitions changed all that.
"When you're on the stage and the lights are in your eyes, it's like you're in a different world almost," she said. "The music is blasting, and you don't see anybody. It's just you, and you're doing your own thing."
It's so intense that, she said, some coaches don't even want their girls to waste their time trying out for their high school squads. Bri waited until her sophomore year at Alonso High School.
By then, her condition had advanced considerably. She felt aches, sometimes random shooting pains. She didn't know what was wrong. At its worst, she said, "it feels like there's a screwdriver inside screwing, and it just hurts so bad and I just want to fall on the floor."
One night she had to stop right in the middle of the football field.
She saw a succession of doctors. It took awhile to find the right diagnosis — she had developmental dysplasia.
In layman's terms, the hip sockets were too shallow for the bones to sit correctly. Cartilage becomes exposed, and through all the repeated gymnastics moves, it can tear.
Doctors couldn't agree on how to treat it. They could simply repair the cartilage. But unless she quit most sports, it would likely be damaged again.
So the family went for the more radical surgery in New York.
Reaction was mixed among friends and teachers. "Some of them try to understand," Bri said. "But I don't think any of them truly understand."
Wanting a clean start and an easier campus to negotiate on crutches, the family sought a transfer to Sickles High School.
And Bri got more serious about her class work. "Laser focus," her mother called it.
As a parent, Cynthia Keenan cannot help but see the irony in Bri's situation.
"If she were a couch potato, video-playing type kid, she might not have problems until she was 30 or 40 years old," Keenan said.
But the Keenan kids were not raised as couch potatoes. Nick, Bri's older brother, plays lacrosse. Their dad, Brian, is an accomplished golfer.
For a while they considered the lesser treatment. "I'd go into the back yard and try my standing tucks," said Bri, referring to the move that involves springing into a back flip from a standing position.
"I was, like, I don't want to lose my stuff [skills] if I can cheer. But then, if I couldn't cheer, I'd still want to be able to do it."
Only after the six-hour surgery was over did Cynthia Keenan acknowledge she'd had some doubts about their decision, which were erased by the doctors' skill and Bri's steely resolve.
"I thought I knew my daughter," Cynthia said. "She's cracking jokes. She does not complain at all."
Look for her on the Sickles squad next year … unless she gets a better offer.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org.