Oct. 24, 2012 at 12:57 PM ET
Only five freshmen got the chance this year to cheer for the University of Arkansas. With flawless moves, a winning attitude, and a zebra print prosthetic leg, Patience Beard is one of them.
“It’s always a challenge, always pushing yourself,” says Beard, 18, whose left leg was amputated before her first birthday.
Jean Nail, director of spirit squads for the U of A, couldn’t help but notice Beard’s leg in the full-length photograph attached to her application for the 24-member squad. “I was really kind of surprised, but excited about it too,” she said. Nail immediately viewed Beard’s audition DVD. She knew the girl had what it took to compete in live tryouts, but wouldn’t grant Beard any special treatment.
Beard wouldn’t need it. She has cheered competitively in her home town of Texarkana, Texas, since the seventh grade and always dreamed of being a college cheerleader. While still a senior in high school, after the grueling auditions, Beard cheered her first game — a spring football scrimmage — in front of 40,000 Razorback fans. If she was nervous, she didn’t let it show. In fact, no one even paid much attention to her leg until the local news ran a story about her.
Former college level cheerleader Sheila Harrell and her daughter watch the University of Arkansas games — and the cheerleaders — together. “Stunting is hard work for those with two legs,” Harrell said. “She makes it look effortless.”
Longtime Razorback supporter Amber Lanning didn’t notice Beard’s prosthetic right away. Once she did, she was impressed and now she appreciates Beard’s influence as a role model for her children. “They are able to witness for themselves that anything is possible.”
That’s Beard’s favorite part: helping others see what’s possible. “It’s more than just yelling out cheers,” she says of the sport she loves.
Beard was born with proximal femoral focal deficiency, a non-hereditary disease of the hip and femur bone that leaves one leg shorter than the other. Beard’s case was severe enough to require amputation of her left leg before her first birthday, and another surgery in the third grade that left her in a full body cast for eight months.
Still, her parents encouraged her to ride a bike, play T-ball, and participate in gymnastics. Beard credits them with instilling confidence and treating her as if she could do anything. “They’ve always pushed me to do the best I can do and never let me give excuses ever,” she said.
They refused to label her as handicapped, while acknowledging the other kids’ natural curiosity. The once sent Beard to kindergarten "show and tell" with her older brother so everyone could see her leg, and see that she was just like them in every other way.
The Football Writers Association of America recently nominated Beard for their Discover Orange Bowl-FWAA Courage Award, but she’s simply happy to inspire. And the university is thrilled to have her. “She’s Patience,” says Nail. “She’s a member of the squad. We expect the same from her that we expect of everyone else. No more, no less.”
Beard balances cheer practice and multiple games a week with classes in pursuit of a communications degree. So what’s really tough for this high achiever? Choosing what fabric to have laminated to her prosthetic leg. “That’s probably my hardest life decision,” she jokes, calling the zebra print an expression of her outgoing personality.
Beard hopes to become a motivational speaker one day, putting her experience rallying crowds to good use. “Everyone goes through obstacles,” she says. “The people who feel good about themselves are the ones who go for their dreams.”
Lela Davidson is the author of Blacklisted from the PTA. Her writing is featured regularly in family and parenting magazines throughout the United States and Canada. She writes about marriage, motherhood, and life-after-40 at After the Bubbly.
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