When Cherise Lee was born, her parents likely never believed that gymnastics was a sport their daughter would partake in. Due to a birth defect, Cherise was born with just one hand. When she was a toddler, Cherise was put in dance class, but she fussed about wearing the tutus and really only cared for the acrobatic aspect of dance. That's when her mom made the decision that would alter the course of Cherise's life: she put her in gymnastics.
Cherise took to gymnastics like a fish to water. Her parents never thought she would be able to tie her own shoes, let alone excel in a sport that requires the use of the entire human body. As she grew, she continued to exceed everyone's expectations of her, even teaching herself how to do bars by hooking her arm around the bar.
When Cherise was 9, she started competing both in gymnastics and in Trampoline (a different discipline of USA Gymnastics) for her club, Jets Gymnastics (Mt. Laurel, New Jersey). She competed in the All-Around (yes, including doing bars), until she was 15, but then switched to specializing in a few events, due to the increasing difficulty of bars. During Cherise's senior year of high school, she took a break from gymnastics, focusing just on trampoline, because of crippling shin splints. She was a level 10 trampolinist, and competed at the USAG National Trampoline & Tumbling Championships.
That's where former Jets teammate, Caitlin Elliott, comes in. Caitlin, two years her senior, was recruited to Rhode Island College to do division III college gymnastics. She encouraged head coach Bob Nannig to recruit Cherise to the team, and in turn, encouraged Cherise to come to compete for RIC.
"When I got recruited at RIC thanks to Cait, I decided to give gymnastics another go. Mostly because I felt like I had some unfinished business with it. There were still some things I had to prove to myself. And with as much as the sport had given me, I just wasn't ready to walk away from it."
Caitlin has truly enjoyed having Cherise has a teammate yet again. "Cherise is the epitome of a good teammate. You can count on her for anything and she is always making everyone smile! Her dedication to the sport and her hard work is immeasurable. I strive to be like her when I am in the gym. We have been flipping together for ten years and everyday I am more and more amazed of what she is capable of doing both in and out of the gym. The entire team looks up to her and admires her passion and commitment to the sport."
Cherise has made a huge impact at RIC during her first season. She was one of the most consistent competitors in the vault line up, scoring a 9.35 in her first ever college meet, and holding the second highest vault average on the team. On beam, Cherise has the most difficult mount on the team and exhibitioned her beam routine a few times during the season. Cherise's training in trampoline made her an excellent tumbler, and is called by her teammates, the "best twister on the team." Her highest score on floor this season is an 8.675.
Videos of Cherise competing on floor and vault
The true mark of a person's character is what their peers say of them, and Cherise's teammates recognize her impact on the team and her caliber as an athlete. Team captain, Courtney Saucier, recalls what Cherise did when a teammate set to compete floor landed short on a tumbling pass during warm-ups and injured her ankles: "Cherise just took her warm-up pants off and started warming up her tumbling, and said she would do floor if Cory couldn't, even though Cherise's shins hurt so badly she can't walk sometimes. She didn't even hesitate to step up. I truly admire her dedication and drive to succeed."
RIC Head Coach, Bob Nannig, says of Cherise, "I have been totally impressed with Cherise this season. She has been a pleasure to have on the team and in the gym. There have been times when Cherise is having trouble with her shins and she steadily works through her discomfort with little or no complaining. I really think she exemplifies our team slogan of "anchor strong"! She is very consistent and reliable, we know we can count on her to put up the scores we need. I think she will set an awesome example for all our incoming freshmen next season and be a tremendous role model. It has been a pleasure to coach such a focused and determined athlete!"
Cherise has enjoyed her experience on a college gymnastics team as well. "My favorite thing about being on a college team is working for something that's bigger than myself. The good of the team is the first priority. And I've never met so many passionate people in my life. It makes it really worthwhile to make such a commitment when everyone wants something as badly as you do."
Cherise's hard work, perseverance, and poise in the face of unimaginable obstacles was rewarded when, at the ECAC Championships on March 10th, Cherise was awarded the very prestigious award of ECAC Rookie of the Year, an award given to the most outstanding freshman gymnast in the conference. She is the first ever Rhode Island College gymnast to receive this award.
Some people might look at Cherise and think that she has a handicap, but could not be further from the truth. Cherise has one hand, and has always competed in a field where everyone has two, and that has not stopped her, or even slowed her down. She proves to be a formidable competitor and truly exemplifies the core values of gymnastics: strength, determination, discipline, perseverance, and passion. On top of it all, she exercises extreme humility, and prefers not to let people focus on what she lacks, but rather, what she gains.
Cherise's advice to gymnasts seeking to overcome a physical or mental disability, injury, or any other seemingly impossible obstacle? "Be okay with taking extra steps and finding little ways to make things easier. I had to give myself options. There were a lot of things I knew I would never be able to do, but I knew I couldn't get stuck in not trying to figure out what I could do. Also, always be willing and open to people who are willing to help."
Cherise is proof that gymnastics can be a sport for anyone and everyone, no matter what obstacles might lie in the way. She has gone from a little girl who hated tutus to an award winning collegiate gymnast. She is truly an inspiration to everyone around her, and as a former RIC gymnast, I am very proud to know that she is representing my alma mater. I only wish she was a year older so we could have been teammates at the same time.
Peace, love, and gymnastics,
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About the Author
Coach Sarah is a former Rhode Island College gymnast, NCGA National qualifier, All-American, current gymnastics coach and judge, and contributor for the gymnastics news source, The Gymternet. Find out what's going on at Spectrum and learn more about the incredible sport of gymnastics!