The Team England ParaCheer athlete and inspirational teaching assistant Danielle Cheetham tells us how she learned to accept her rare condition and dream big again
Three years ago, a diagnosis of Ehlers Danlos Syndrome (EDS) – a rare condition with multiple debilitating symptoms – could have been the end of Danielle’s sporting life. Competing on the world stage definitely wasn’t on her radar, but thanks to her plucky spirit, talent and the introduction of a new form of competitive cheerleading called ParaCheer, Danielle did just that. All while holding down the day job!
From a dancing background Danielle had always been active and competed on the dance team at university to a high level as well as cheerleading, but having struggled with inexplicable joint pain from a young age, she opted for routine surgery on a shoulder in 2013. It was then the path to a diagnosis of EDS began. Danielle explained: “The physio dealing with my rehab felt something wasn’t right.” Despite ligaments being tightened and reattached, Danielle’s shoulder started to sublux (drift) again.
SENSE OF RELIEF
When Danielle’s mum read an article about someone with EDS she felt it described her daughter’s condition perfectly and the family pushed for a referral to a top rheumatologist in Manchester. There was a sense of relief. Danielle recalled: “Everything started to make sense. I was no longer someone with lots of things going wrong. I was an individual with Ehlers Danlos. I could start educating myself and developing coping mechanisms.”
Danielle’s main EDS issues are joint instability, chronic pain and fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerances, soft and fragile skin, delicate veins, bruising easily plus a number of others. Strong medication for the pain and fatigue has its own issues, but Danielle has learned to listen to her body and adjust her lifestyle accordingly. “I try to get on with life but there are days when I can’t and because EDS isn’t a well-known condition I find myself constantly explaining it.”
When a second bout of shoulder surgery failed Danielle was told she’d never be able to dance or compete in cheerleading again which was a horrible blow. “I felt like my health was defining what I could and couldn’t do.” Feeling low and trying to come to terms with her situation, Danielle was introduced to Team England ParaCheer by a friend who’d been part of the launch of ParaCheer at the ICU Cheerleading World Championships the previous year.
Founded by Team England athlete and coach Rick Rodgers who was left in a wheelchair after an accident, ParaCheer involves physically disabled and able-bodied athletes competing together on integrated teams. With renewed hope Danielle signed up for the Team England trials feeling more than a tad anxious. She wasn’t the only athlete with EDS which was a boost. Danielle performed well and was offered a place on the freestyle pom team. Freestyle pom originates from side-line cheerleading and drill teams, but has been developed in to a dance style of its own with strong synchronisation and visual effect, clean precise movement and pom technique.
Training with Team England – although it ‘wipes her out’ – has made Danielle realise she’s able to do anything she puts her mind to just in an alternative way and she’s honoured to travel to the World Championships for two reasons. She explained: “It’s a privilege to compete for my country and show the world what we can do even with disabilities.” Travelling to Florida will be a thrilling experience and Danielle is full of praise for the ‘amazing coaches’. This year Team England has two at the champiosnhips with a medal a realistic prospect. There’s also a campaign for cheerleading to become an Olympic sport which is ‘incredibly exciting’.
Lucky pupils in prep school at St George’s School in Edgbaston, where pupils know Danielle as Miss Cheetham ,benefit from her talents as she enjoys teaching Key Stage 1 and 2 dancing and cheerleading. They’ll be watching Miss Cheetham’s progress with interest no doubt, as will we.