Through Make-A-Wish, Ball State gymnastics creates unforgettable experience

<p>Halleigh Lynn Chitwood was diagnosed with Leukemia in October 2016. She has been a honorary member of the Ball State gymnastics team for the past two months. <strong>Ball State Gymnastics, Photo Provided</strong></p>

Halleigh Lynn Chitwood was diagnosed with Leukemia in October 2016. She has been a honorary member of the Ball State gymnastics team for the past two months. Ball State Gymnastics, Photo Provided

There was an extra member on the Ball State gymnastics' team during its come-from-behind victory over Bowling Green. From the team huddle to the Cardinals comeback performance on the floor event, 6-year-old Halleigh Lynn Chitwood stood close by.

Halleigh's childhood hasn't been as easy. In October 2016, she was diagnosed with Leukemia and has been undergoing treatment ever since. Still, Halleigh continued to stay involved in gymnastics in her hometown of Marion.

For the past two months, however, she's been on a bigger stage, serving as an honorary member of the Ball State gymnastics team. 

Every offseason, the gymnastics team tries to connect to the local community. Events like the Royal Ball, which invites local families to join in a princess-themed dance, is just one example of that. 

This year, however, the team wanted to do something more. They wanted to have a stronger connection with the community. They wanted to give a child an experience that she would never forget.

And in two short months, they seem to have done just that.

"I had a great time with the team," Halleigh said. "It was awesome." 

In late-October, assistant coach Jessie DeZiel said she contacted the Make-A-Wish Foundation. After a few months searching for the right individual, they came back with a perfect match.

“They picked Chitwood and I was really excited," DeZiel said. "The Make-A-Wish people contacted me and they said they had found a girl who was involved with gymnastics, so she already knew a lot about the sport.”

Right after Christmas, Halleigh found out she would be spending two months 45 minutes down the road in Muncie. According to Jenna Ropp, Chitwood’s mother, she was ecstatic walking into the gym for the first time.

“She was extremely excited when she walked into the gym,” Ropp said. “It’s been great to see her run around during practices, because for a while she did not have a lot of energy. It was really great to see that because a lot of time chemo takes a toll on kid’s energy.”

Halleigh's excitement to join the team was matched by the gymnasts, who were unaware of their new teammate until a few days before her arrival.

“We’ve seen some other teams do the same thing, so we’ve always wanted to do something like this,” senior Baylee Bell said. “When she came in the first day, you could see the excitement on her face and probably the excitement on our faces as well."

Swipe through the Instagram post for more pictures and videos of Halleigh with the Ball State gymnastics team.

As the team prepared for the season, so did Halleigh. She would have a few exhibition performances in the February home meet, so she did what she needed in the gym in order to prepare.

"Walking on the balance beam was my favorite part," Halleigh said. "I like to balance on the balance beam and jump on the trampoline. I can do a twist in the air on the trampoline." 

Outside of the gym, the team made sure their newest teammate had everything prepared for their upcoming Royal Ball as well, ensuring that Halleigh was fit for royalty.

“For the ball, we did a 'Say Yes to the Dress' kind of thing where she picked out her dress,” Ropp said. “After we picked out her shoes and all her jewelry for the ball, she met back up with the team to prepare for the meet.”

After dancing the night away last Friday, it was show time. On top of duties like participating in an exhibition beam performance, judging a dance contest and picking a raffle winner, Halleigh was on the sidelines supporting the team rally back to beat Bowling Green 195.000-194.275.

While the team helped Halleigh along, both inside and outside the gym, Halleigh seems to have awoken the inner littler girl in her fellow teammates as well.

“We remind them that when things are tough or you're struggling, just go back to why we are doing this,” head coach Joanna Saleem said. “A lot of them are doing this for the little girl they used to be. There’s so many young gymnasts that look up to them and knowing that there’s a little girl out there they get to do this for, makes this a win-win.”

As Halleigh's stint with the team has concluded, players like Bell say the experience served as a reminder to appreciate every day spent competing.

DeZiel, who had been in contact with Ropp from the beginning and was a major force in bringing Chitwood into the gym, said seeing her smile means everything.

“It means a lot to see someone go through something like this and to look back at your life and say, ‘It’s not the best day in your life, but there are worse things going on with people who aren’t as grateful and blessed as you,’” DeZiel said. “Just to see her smile every day, every time she is in the gym, it really makes my day."

Halleigh was only a team member for two short months, but the memories made are likely not to be forgotten by her, or anyone on the Ball State gymnastics team.

“She has loved the time she has spent with the team,” Ropp said. “It’s all she talks about with everybody. This is an experience she will never forget.”

Contact Jack Williams with comments at or on Twitter at @jackwilliamsBSU.


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