March 19, 2014
by Samantha Jacquest
Auditions can be nerve-wracking experiences; people are judging, watching, waiting, scrutinizing a performance for any mistake.
Sophomore Katie Gruber was nervous when she auditioned for the UW-Whitewater cheerleading squad her freshman year. But she says it wasn’t as stressful because she didn’t take it seriously.
“I just did it for laughs at the time,” Gruber said. “My friend Elizabeth [Fideler] and I got these letters saying there were cheer tryouts, and she said we should try out to see if we would actually make the team.”
Gruber has cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder that occurs during pregnancy or early infancy and affects body movement and muscle coordination, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke.
The cause of Gruber’s disorder likely stems from her mother’s choice to smoke during pregnancy and neglect Gruber in her first few days of life.
Now adopted into the same family as her half siblings, Gruber lives with physical and learning disabilities. Spasms contract her muscles painfully, getting worse during the winter. The right side of her body is more affected than her left. She also suffers from a mild form of Parkinson’s Disease, which causes her to shake uncontrollably.
“It’s one of those types of disabilities where you reach a certain plateau,” Gruber said. “My plateau was pretty much my junior year of high school, then you start noticing new challenges with your body, and I noticed that quite quickly right after my plateau had reached.”
Part of the team
Because of her disabilities, Gruber did not take Fideler seriously when she suggested they try out for the cheerleading squad together. Fideler has nystagmus, which causes fuzzy vision and her eyes to move uncontrollably.
“I figured it was a good thing we could do together and we could get the word out about disabilities and that we could do a lot of things that other people could do,” Fideler said.
Fideler had been a member of cheerleading teams in the past. For Gruber, it was a different story.
“At my high school, I never really was able to get involved with anything, and with sports definitely not,” Gruber said. “They called my school inclusive, but I didn’t think so. I thought it was more segregated and I was bullied a lot.”
Gruber decided to go for it. She and Fideler contacted the student coaches and adviser of the squad. It took some time for the student coaches to learn what Gruber and Fideler were comfortable with, but after about four months of meetings, they were both part of the team and cheering at the home basketball games.
Fideler said she thinks at first some of the other cheerleaders weren’t sure how to react about her and Gruber joining the team. After a few games, everyone got used to the idea and enjoyed have her and Gruber on the squad, Fideler said.
Fideler had to quit the squad this year because of her class schedule, but Gruber is still cheering, and this year she’s getting more involved with her team members on and off the court.
“Now we’re in year two, and now what makes me do it is the bond I have with the cheerleaders,” Gruber said. “I trust them with a bunch of stuff. I know they will never try to endanger me.”
Sophomore Allysa Michaelsen, one of the squad’s student coaches, and other members of the squad described Gruber as brave for auditioning for the team and being so visible at basketball games.
“I don’t know if other people would have the same attitude as she does about it,” Michaelsen said. “I would be absolutely terrified if I was in her position. I was terrified just trying out as a freshman, just coming into the squad, and she did it with such a wonderful attitude and just said, ‘this is something I want to do.’”
Ignoring the timeline
Gruber knew someone who was given a timeline: he would live until he was 28 years old. Even though he made it until 31, Gruber said he was so depressed by knowing he would soon die, that he had given up years before.
Gruber refuses to be given a timeline.
“I try to stay away from the timeline and get as little X-rays and stuff as possible,” Gruber said. “I worry about it sometimes, but I don’t let it affect me to the point of where I can’t handle it. I know that if it comes it’s just part of life.”
Sophomore Coleton Hrgich has known Gruber since their summer transition program going into freshman year. He said Gruber is always in the front row of class, always has a story to tell and does not let negative influences faze her.
“She’s happy with who she is and what she has because she’s overcome a lot,” Hrgich said. “That just proves to me how strong she is. I know some people who would probably just give up if they had a disability.”
Life as a Warhawk
Gruber said UW-W has made living with a disability less stressful. Coming from a high school that didn’t know how to handle her disability, Gruber said the chancellor and the university are very accommodating and open to suggestions from disabled students.
Something as simple as a button to help open doors is what Katie sees as a way of the university welcoming her.
Sophomore Haley Krupp, another student coach for the cheerleading squad, described Gruber as a positive influence on campus and on the cheerleading squad.
“She keeps everybody’s spirits up,” Krupp said. “People might get down on themselves or not so happy with the team, but then we see her there and it just reminds us that not everyone has the privilege of doing this, and we should really be grateful for what we do have.”
Gruber said she strives to enjoy every moment: whether it’s cramming for endless exams or cheering on her Warhawk basketball players.
“While I’m here I try to live as normal of a life as possible,” Gruber said. “Even though I know there’s, at this point, no cure, and some of the babies that are born with it have to die, I’m one of the lucky ones that hasn’t yet.”