It’s hard to believe that only 7 short months ago the cheer world was rocked to it’s core when tween cheerleader Grace Hegh suffered a horrific accident; one that could have ended tragically. Luckily this talented little girl, who is well-known for her happy personality and positive spirit, not only recovered from the accident but was able to return to the sport she loves. Thousands of cheerleaders, coaches, parents and fans of the sport followed Grace through her courageous journey of recovery and found inspiration in each and every obstacle she overcame to reach her goals. She is the true testament of overcoming adversity. Heart of Cheer caught up with this amazing young lady and her mum Andrea to see where she is today and what she has gained from this experience.

Q & A with Grace and Andrea Hegh

Start by telling us some background about yourself and your cheer career.

Grace: “I started cheerleading in the beginning of August 2009 at age 7, and was placed on the peewee team which had 4 months before the end of the season (mid Dec). In 2010, I was on the same team, L1 Peewee, and I was used as a flyer. I felt terrible at it, until around September 2010, and that’s when everything suddenly clicked for me. From the end of October through to our breakup in December I got my flick flick series to tuck and standing tuck. Maybe I wasn’t so bad after all? I was elated to get peewee of the year, and was put straight onto a L4 team for the next session! From 2011 until now I have always been on multiple teams and competed in solos, duos and stunt challenges as well. In 2011, at 9 years old, I trialed successfully for the Jr New Zealand team. I have been on that team since, although now it is called The New Zealand Development Team (as it is no longer just junior athletes). I have been very successful on my teams, and especially in the junior individual (solo) divisions of which I have been undefeated for the last 2 seasons in both New Zealand and Australia. This year I was faced with the difficult decision to move gyms to join a L5 Jr team. This has been very hard for me, as I had been with Fantasy Cheerleading since I started, and everyone there was like my family. I made this decision so that I can continue on my journey to win a World’s ring. Although I am only 11, I knew I had to make this move to keep working and developing higher skill levels. It has been frustrating because I don’t think everyone understands my reason for moving gyms, and so many of my old cheer family have stopped talking to me at the moment. I hope that that will change in time, and they will realize that I still love them all, but I needed to make the change for my own personal journey.”

How would your friends and family describe you?

Grace: “I think that most of my friends and family would describe me as a nice kid that has a bit of a freakish talent and is very driven to achieve a dream.”

Tell us about the accident and what happened.

Grace: “I actually don’t remember the accident. Mum tells me that was God’s way of protecting me from it. I only really know what I have been told by my family. We didn’t talk details about it for the first month or so, because I didn’t want to know and my mum would cry every time she thought about it. Even though I was ok, it was really hard for my family to relive what they saw happen at the Gala day. My mum will tell you what happened.”

grace3Andrea: “On the 30th November 2013, we were holding a fundraising gala to help raise the funds for Grace to travel to The All Star Games in Las Vegas in April 2014. We had an inflatable tumbling track in the car park as part of the entertainment, and for tumble displays during the day. As the day went on, the weather started to change and we were getting some gusts of wind every now and then. At about 2pm, I decided that we would pack up as the wind was starting to pick up more, and so we went and got the car to pack some of the raffle gifts into. I parked my car about 4 meters away from the tumble track (on the other side of the car, about 4 meters away, was a bouncy castle). My car is a hatchback, and I had the back open and was putting some raffle gifts in it when this huge gust of wind came. I looked up and the tumble track was flying through the air suddenly. One end hit a metal light pole and the other end hit the side of a building. I saw it catapult Grace into the air like a missile, and then she was flying over my car and I turned to run to try to catch her. As I turned, Grace hit the tarmac in the car park. She was bent in half sideways when she hit and her head and left side hit first. She was unconscious. At first everyone thought she was dead because she wasn’t moving or breathing. I got to her first (her dad was close behind and had been sprinting across the car park to try to catch her as well). I grabbed her, supporting her head and neck, and screamed for someone to call an ambulance. After about a minute, she started to gurgle and then started to scream. She was trying to move, but I leaned on her not letting her move because I was worried about her neck. I told her Nana to lay her hands on Grace and pray, and as she did this Grace became quiet. Then the ambulance and paramedics arrived and she was taken to the hospital. She sustained a head injury which required stitches, dislocated her left hip, and had terrible abrasions on her left side, elbow, shoulders and foot. She had neck, back, shoulder and hip x-rays, but was given the all clear at the time. It was later that they found she had dislodged her elbow growth plate (the Physio determined this day two post-accident). In addition, in the beginning of February the Physio found that she the cushioning in between two of the vertebrae in her neck had been squashed out, and that one of the two main arteries to her brain had been getting occluded which was why she was getting so dizzy and suffering from blank spells and memory loss. She was so blessed to have this Physio, as without him and being left undiagnosed there was a VERY high chance of her suffering a stroke.”

What was the recovery like? What was the focus you had to get you through the tough times?

grace6Grace: “The recovery started on day two. I met with the Physio every day for the first week, and he gave me exercises that I had to do. It was very challenging. but I kept at it. By the end of that week, we had a book and I had to write the exercises in it and mark that I had completed them. I was having dressing changes every day as well, and that was extremely painful, and I had also developed a cough. The cough was really intense and it made it hard to breathe, (so much that I collapsed a few times from not being able to breath) but the doctors couldn’t explain why it was happening! Week two the dressing changes were getting easier, but I couldn’t look at the injury on my lower back because it was horrible. I talked to the Physio and told him that I still wanted to get to The All Star Games in April; I had to! He sat me down and we came up with a plan. I was heading home (1 1/4 hours drive away) so he set me a goal for the next 5 days. I had to get on a bike and do 7 x 1 km sprints on it every day. I had to write down what the weather was like, how each sprint felt and the lap time. I knew it was going to be hard, as he told me it would be, but it was the best exercise for my hip. Well I can tell you it was way harder than I thought it would ever be! I was so fit before the accident, but now I really struggled. The cough was really bad and the sprint was actually more of a crawl. It was so hard and I was vomiting from pushing myself to my limits. I wanted to give up, but I knew I couldn’t. I was crying and coughing and it hurt. My mum had to follow me in the car to time me, and to make sure no one ran me over (on our very small private road). Mum was crying watching me push myself, and when I started vomiting she said she wanted to stop me, but she knew she couldn’t. We went back to the Physio and he gave me some more exercises to do in addition to the biking, and he told my mum that this week was going to be harder and she might need to push me even more. That week was actually more like what I think hell would be like. I wanted to give up. I was so sore and the cough was not letting up, and my mum had to try to encourage me out the window of the car to keep going. My dad would come along on his motorbike whenever he was close (we live on a dairy farm) and he would ride next to me to encourage me. At the end of that week, I went back to the Physio with my book and we discussed my progress. He introduced another exercise to the book, a step through bike ride. I now had to do 7 x 1 kg bike sprints, then I had to get driven to the local school (10 mins away) and I had to do the following sprint 10 mt, jog back, sprint 20 mt, jog back, sprint 30 mt, jog back, sprint 40 mt, jog back, sprint 50 mt then jog back to the beginning. The first day I did it, I thought I was going to die; my cough just wouldn’t stop and the vomiting was back. I didn’t give up, not for one second, and I kept my focus on the All Star Games. I went back to the Physio at the end of that week and he was really pleased with what I was doing. We had a plan that I would be able to be back to tumble on January 6th; that’s when we had our first cheerleading clinic for the new year. The Physio and I set out a plan to cover the holidays- I still had to bike, run and he added conditioning exercises. My back lesion was getting better and I just had to push. I worked really hard, but the worst thing was that my cough was still really bad and mum had taken me to the doctor 3 times already and they still couldn’t explain why it was happening.”

What was it like the very first time you stepped back into the gym after the accident? Were there any struggles? Name some of the challenges you faced.

Andrea: “On the morning of the 6th of January (the day the clinic was starting) Kristen Stiengruber (she was taking the clinic) came to Whangarei. One of the Team New Zealand boys (Dylan Grant now on SMOED) came up with Kristen because he wanted to support Grace. We all went to the Physio’s office before the clinic was due to start and the Physio gave Grace his blessing to start tumbling again, but she had to keep the book and the other exercises he had given her going as well.”

grace8Grace: “I walked into the gym and it felt so good. I was so happy to be back in there and excited to get into it.
We started the clinic and it was really weird. I would usually be the first person to go when they said ‘bounders or rebounds’, but I actually couldn’t remember what they were!!!! It was so strange and I had to watch someone else go first, then I would remember it and go. It was really scary and I didn’t want to tell anyone what was happening. That night, another of my friends from team NZ came up (Daniel O’Neil). Dylan, Dan Dan and Kristen were all staying with us, and that night they were all ‘yay doubles tomorrow’ and stuff and I was scared. I didn’t know if I could do it and anymore!”
“On day 2 of the clinic, I gave running passes a try and the boys were really encouraging me to push and I threw my double. I landed it, but I didn’t tell anyone it didn’t feel right. I couldn’t work it out in my head; it was strange but everyone was really happy and excited for me. For the rest of the week I didn’t really do much in the tumble line, but I was sort of pretending I had so that no one noticed.”
“The next week I went to Auckland to hang out with Kristen and the boys again and tried tumbling, but it still felt like it wasn’t me. I was really dizzy, but I didn’t say anything. The next week we spent at home on the farm and I just did the Physio exercises. The week after that (end of Jan beginning of Feb) I went to the gym with mum and was practicing tumbling. I was told by the Physio I could move on from 3 element passes to 5-6 elements. Mum said give it a try so I did. I did 5 flicks and at the end I was so dizzy I fell to the ground. Mum laughed and I told her I was dizzy. She said it is probably just your head getting used to it again. So I tried again and again, but I collapsed at the end. Mum said that was weird, and I started to cry and I told her it kept happening but I hadn’t told anyone. We had a Physio appointment the next morning, so I told him and he did some tests straight away and he told us that I had a potentially life threatening problem. He said he only sees 2 or 3 injuries like that a year and they are usually the result of serious car accidents!! Two of the vertebrae in my neck had squeezed the cushioning out, and one of the two main arteries to my brain was being occluded every time my head was back. That was why I was dizzy and why I couldn’t remember things. I asked him if this was the end of my goal to get to The All Star Games, and he said potentially yes, but because I had done so well with everything and I was determined and never gave up together we could give it our best shot. Over the next week I started doing neck exercises every 15 mins. The new school year had started, and all the kids kept teasing me because I had to do these exercises and that meant at school as well. I recovered with super-fast speed. The Physio was so happy with me, and he gave me the all clear to give 3 element tumble, but no twisting, a go. I went to a gym in Auckland (we no longer had a gym in Whangarei) and I can say I was terrified! My first try I did 2 flicks and I felt good, so I did 3 and I was like ‘yay this feels normal!’ So I did a flick tuck series and it was easy and felt so good that I did a layout and it still felt great. Mum rang the physio and he said “Let her rip”. I was a bit nervous, but I did a series through to a full, then a double, and it felt really good. I knew I was way behind where I needed to be for USA, but I didn’t want to give up and my mum and dad had already paid for the flights and they were nonrefundable.”

What was one thing that helped you overcome all that you have?

grace1Grace: “One of the things that helped me to overcome this the most was my mum and dad. My mum was there every step of the way encouraging me when I was struggling, to push me when I needed pushing, and crying with me when I thought things were too much. However, none of this would be possible without the incredible support of my dad. He has allowed mum, my little brother and I to move closer to cheer to try to make it easier on us, even though it has left him on the farm on his own so much. He is so supportive of what I am doing, and without him and mum I could never do it. I am so thankful to both my parents for supporting me, even though I know my mum misses my dad so much sometimes she cries. There are lots of other people as well, but no one that has sacrificed as much as mum and dad have.”

What would be the biggest thing you have learned from everything that has happened to you?

Grace: “The biggest thing I have learnt is to NEVER GIVE UP!! Nothing comes easy, and you have to work hard even when you want to give up, because it’s so hard you have to push harder.”

How do you think life’s path has molded who you are today?

Grace: “I think it is God that has molded my life, as mum always says, that I am touched and that I was put on this earth for a reason. I don’t know what that reason is right now though; maybe to help people be nicer.”

Tell us about the support you received from family, friends, coaches, teammates, and the cheer industry.

Grace: “When my accident happened my Facebook page and my mum’s page went crazy with well wishes from people all over the world people I didn’t know. It was crazy. I had a lot of family and friends who messaged me and stuff, but I think that most of them think that me, my mum and dad are nuts because of what we do for cheer.”

Andrea: “When Grace finally started back tumbling properly towards the end of February, there was only 6 weeks until The All Star Games. We now had to travel 2 hours to get to a gym. With our gym having been packed up in January and downsizing to a half size floor, but not re-opening until late February mid-March, we had approached Allstar Cheerleaders in Auckland (where Graces NZD team practices) and asked if we could please borrow their floor. Allstar Cheerleading was amazing, and their owner Kimberley told Grace that she was welcome to go there any time she liked. Without this generosity we would not have made the games. So 6 weeks out from The Games and Grace’s focus for pushing herself, she was traveling the 2 hours to Auckland on a Thursday night and training hard Friday through Monday. We have some wonderful friends who have opened their house up to us allowing us to stay every weekend. At this point we still only had half of Grace’s routine and we were pushing to get the other half, but unfortunately this was proving a challenge.”

grace9Grace: “In mid-March, 3 weeks out from The Games, we finally managed to get the rest of the routine. It was really hard and the endurance for the one and a half minute routine was difficult to find. The persistent cough was starting to shift (after mum changed doctors I had a chest X-ray and I had upper airway inflammation detected and managed), so the countdown was on. My first few full outs were a disaster and I was getting really upset with myself and really starting to doubt that I could do it. Mum and Kristen could see that I was really struggling and starting to feel the pressure of it being only 2 weeks away. They got the boys (Dylan, Dan Dan and a couple of others) to come along and tumble with me and push me. This helped me so much because it made me start pushing again! Don’t get me wrong, there were still tears and times where I said “I can’t do this” but I was managing. Most people think ‘oh it’s only a minute and a half come on really’, but honestly it is the hardest minute and a half possible! In the week before I was due to fly out to America it was starting to get easier; it was a challenge but it was definitely doable. Unfortunately on the Sunday before we flew out (we flew on the Wednesday) I was training with NZD and I was dropped out of a basket onto my back. It really hurt and we were hoping it would settle down that night, but on Monday morning it was really bad. We were supposed to be in Aukland training until we flew out to America, but instead mum was on the phone to the Physio back in Whangarei, and suddenly we were off in the car for the 2 hour drive to see him. He opened his practice especially for me and spent ages with me until the evening actually. We had to stay in Whangarei that night and we were back with him early Tuesday morning for more therapy. He gave me exercises to do to try to help it settle down, and also gave me a plan for the long flights and airport stop overs we were going to have. I did everything that he said, and although my back wasn’t 100%, I got to America and I managed to fulfill my accident goal. It may not have been at my best, but I did it. I got there through everything that had happened; I made it! It was an amazing feeling, and even though I didn’t win the competition, I achieved my post-accident goal. I had such an amazing experience and met so many wonderful people. It was an experience I will treasure forever.

How would you use this experience to mentor another athlete going through something similar? Any words of advice you would give them to help them make it through?

Grace: “I would get alongside them and tell them to keep pushing- don’t give up! It might be really hard, and it might take ages, but push, don’t ever give up. Focus on your goal and don’t deviate.”

What has been your biggest achievement since the accident?

Grace: “My biggest achievement was actually getting to The All Star Games and competing. I may not have been at the level I needed to be, but I got there and I gave it my best shot. I have just gone from strength to strength since then, and am now pushing past where I was before the accident in my tumbling. I still have to work hard to get my flying flexibility back as one of the things my hip prevented was my flyer stretching, but that is my new focus to work.”grace2

Heart of Cheer would like to thank Grace and Andrea Hegh for taking time to speak with us, and we wish Grace all of the best on her cheerleading career.

Leslie,grace hegh,Overcoming Adversity
It's hard to believe that only 7 short months ago the cheer world was rocked to it's core when tween cheerleader Grace Hegh suffered a horrific accident; one that could have ended tragically. Luckily this talented little girl, who is well-known for her happy personality and positive spirit, not...