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Not even a wheelchair can hold back Lodi youth cheerleader

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Posted: Saturday, November 17, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 6:53 am, Sat Nov 17, 2012.

Little Katelyn Gauna's arms shoot up. Over her head, out in a T, down to her side. And repeat. All the while, the 5-year-old cheerleader shouts with glee: "Go, big blue!"

Katelyn sports a bright blue-and-white ribbon in her hair, matching the navy Lodi Colts windbreaker she wears to keep warm on a chilly evening at Salas Park.

Just one thing does not match.

Of the 10 Colts youth cheerleaders, Katelyn is the only one not standing upright or jumping.

She cannot. Paralyzed from the waist down since birth by a developmental disorder, Katelyn performs the team's routine from a black wheelchair.

It's a limitation, yes — but not a burden.

When Katelyn cheers on the Colts against Pittsburg in today's DYSA Starts NorCal Super Bowl, she will be right in the front row, with a radiant smile and endless spirit.

It's a spirit her condition cannot bring down.

"She's so enthusiastic," Colts cheerleading coach Stephane Maldonado said. "She's very, very confident."

'She has done remarkably well'

"We were very lucky," Katelyn's mother Heidi said.

More severe instances of spina bifida, a defect where parts of the vertebrae are not fully formed, result in a complete loss of feeling from the neck down.

Doctors detected Katelyn's illness 25 weeks into Heidi's pregnancy. She was not sure, initially, how serious of a case it would be.

Thankfully, things could have been worse.

"It was fortunate for us," Heidi said. "She has actually done remarkably well."

Indeed, cheerleading was a perfect fit for Katelyn, who has always been a ball of energy despite her disability.

Though in the wheelchair for most of the day, she freely crawls on and off when watching television; "Dora the Explorer" is her show of choice. Katelyn even ventures around the stairs in the Gaunas' two-story house.

Music? She loves that, too, constantly listening on her iPod nano. ("There's only so much Hannah Montana we could handle, so we got her one and earphones," Heidi laughed.)

And in her kindergarten class at Washington Elementary, Katelyn is always an active participant.

"It's really fun for us to see," Heidi said. "She's very independent, and loves to be in the mix of everything. We sometimes have trouble keeping up with her."

A natural cheerleader

When her older brothers, Chris, 8, and Andrew, 10, started taking up sports, Katelyn wanted to be active just like them.

She began with cooking and then ballet before finally joining the Lodi Colts junior cheerleaders this year. And in a short time, Katelyn has fit right in, even as she stands out.

"She does all the hand movements and learns them so quickly, without any help," Maldonado said. "When she first started, I was kind of nervous. I thought she would be shy and not as outgoing as she is."

She is not shy at all.

Ask Katelyn about her Halloween costume (a cat), her favorite food (grapes), or what she wants to be when she grows up (a cook), and you'll get a quick answer.

Ask her to demonstrate her favorite "Go, big blue!" routine, and Katelyn obliges without hesitation.

More often than not, the lessons continue back at home, only with Katelyn as the instructor.

"She actually teaches me," Heidi said, "like, 'Mom that's not the way you do it.'"

During practices — she has missed only one all season — and weekend games, Katelyn takes turns with the other girls calling out cheers. Sometimes, she will crawl out of the wheelchair herself to pose as part of a team routine.

And Katelyn will keep her eyes peeled on the field, where her brother Chris plays on the Colts Starts (ages 5 to 9) football team.

All that time, flashing her glowing smile.

"She loves it. She has a great personality and is surrounded by so many people that care about her," Heidi said.

Cheers to that.

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