HOBART — A quick glance to the track between plays and the Hobart cheerleading team probably looks like any other. But Alyssa Candiano and Kaitlyn Watts aren’t your typical cheerleaders, classmates or community members.
They each have disabilities that have strengthened who they are as people and have inspired those around them. The seniors are cheerful, leaders on their squad and choose not to let their disabilities define who they are, empowering others along the way.
“I don’t know anyone with my condition but I do know other people with disabilities and I know they’re really strong because of them, so I try to be the same way,” Candiano said. “I try not to let it discourage me.”
She was diagnosed legally blind with coloboma iris, which affects 1 in 10,000 people according to MedlinePlus. She’s the first in her family to have the congenital defect. As she describes it, she can only see partially out of her left eye and not at all out of her right eye, which impacts her depth perception.
“I try to not let it stop me. I try to make good out of a bad situation because there’s nothing that I can do about it. There are no surgeries that are going to fix it,” she said. “So I just try to be positive about it and make good out of a bad situation.”
Positive she is. Energetic, too. A self-proclaimed social butterfly, while laughing she said her friends “know that I’m Lyss, I can’t see, if you see a hole, push me out of the way."
Candiano has greatly impacted Kelsey Black, a senior who has known Candiano since sixth grade.
“Alyssa is the kindest person you will probably ever meet. Even if she’s having a bad day, or something’s not going right, she’s the first one to ask you how you’re doing and how she can help your day become better. And that’s someone we all want in our lives. That’s helped me to be a better person, seeing she leads by example,” Black said.
The coronavirus pandemic has been especially hard for Watts. She has had hearing loss since she was 3 years old and has worn hearing aids ever since. She reads lips to help herself understand others better.
She had some concerns entering high school that her life would be impacted. She didn’t want to be a different person or treated differently.
“I felt like I wasn’t going to fit in because of my hearing loss,” she said. “I thought I was going to be made fun of, kind of. I thought I wasn’t going to have that many friends and nobody was going to help me.”
Watts and Candiano have not only found a home cheering for the Brickies, but also a family. Moreover, they’re a big reason why the family is so close.
“They both have made an impact on this team. They are very valued members. They’ve been cheering longer than I have so I take their input and use their advice on things,” Black said. “Lyss is always willing to jump in and try something new, and Katie too. Wherever they go to help the team, they do, and they don’t let what they have affect what they do. That’s been an impact on the team to show they’re not letting it affect them so we’re not going to let what we have affect us.”
Candiano and Watts have made everyone around them better, including their coaches. It took time to get acclimated to one another as freshmen because their disabilities weren’t easily noticeable.
“They have both taught me that one coaching style is not sufficient for every person. I feel like I’ve become a better coach because they’ve made me realize that some things are not just instructional,” said Jennifer Zoladz, who has coached them all four years. “I think that coaching is more off the field and more outside of practice than it is inside of practice.
“They have both just taught me that no matter what, no matter the situation to apply yourself and look at the best in every situation no matter if you’re having a bad day (and) don’t let it carry over. Just look at the best of every single day, and it’s not as big as you think it is.”
Like most people, each learns differently. Doing new cheers with different songs and routines can be challenging even for a person without disabilities, so they both go the extra mile to learn and get it down before gameday.
“Usually, when it comes to dances, I do count in my head (because) if we’re not using a big speaker for music I won’t be able to hear it,” Watts said. “The cheers, usually, when I hear someone call it I know right away what it is.”
Said Candiano: “It takes me not that long to pick up a routine, just practice, practice, practice. Just speak up for myself when I need something.
“Honestly, I listen to sound a lot. I pay a lot more attention to sound. I also count the typical one, three, five, seven count in cheer — everyone does that — and then just the typical cheer cues. In your music, you’re going to have cues on when to jump. Just listening to your teammates; surround sound, kind of.”
And just because they have disabilities doesn’t mean they aren’t coached hard.
“I don’t think (Jennifer) has ever lied to me throughout my cheer career. She’s told me what I needed to fix, what I’m doing great on, what I can improve on and also that I still know my value in cheer and not even just as a cheerleader but as a person,” Candiano said.
Watts has developed into one of the most reliable bases, becoming an example for her teammates during instruction.
“Something I’ve always been impressed with with Katie is we’ve put her in some crazy stunting positions and most people would have a hard time with that, and maybe even complain a little, and she is a workhorse,” first-year assistant coach Ashley Soderquist said. “She’s so tiny but she has all this power, and I think it says a lot about her as a person, too.”
Inspirational role models
Whether they know it or not, the courage and strength Watts and Candiano have shown has been inspirational to their teammates and coaches.
Candiano specifically wants to be a role model for her 10-year-old brother, who also has coloboma iris.
“I try to be a good role model to him because I know he looks up to me a lot, especially being an older sibling,” she said. “I try to be a good example, not just for him but for other people I want to be encouraging. I try to be a good role model for a bunch of little kids.”
A junior varsity cheerleader, Gianna Rodriguez, also looks up to Candiano and aspires to be just like her.
“If you were talking about most spirited people, it’s those two,” Soderquist said. “I’ve even heard Gianna say, ‘I want to be just like you Lyss.’ For somebody to newly come into cheering and try so hard and know that’s the person she can look up to, it’s wonderful to see them both grow in that situation.”
When things get difficult, coaches, classmates and teammates look to Candiano and Watts for their strength to face their daily battles.
“There’s things in life that I go through every day and think, ‘I don’t want to do that, or I can’t do that or I don’t understand that.’ Seeing them and seeing that they don’t seem to struggle with themselves … they’ve blossomed into really wonderful young ladies,” Soderquist said.
Said Zoladz: “They’ve taught me to always persevere no matter the circumstances. That reaching out for help can sometimes be the most courageous thing that you can do. Katie and Lyss have taught me much more over the last four years than I could ever have taught them.”
(Editor's note: The original story appeared in The Times of Northwest Indiana).