Don't let the prosthetic leg fool you.
Gabi Shull, a 16-year-old from Warrensburg, Mo., is quiet but mighty, a petite fighter who didn't let cancer thwart her passion for dance.
She'll come to Colorado for "Clouds," a company showcase by Synergy Dance Academy, and perform alongside two of her sisters in two shows Saturday at the Colorado Springs School.
In 2011, then 9-year-old Gabi took a spill during an ice skating session and landed on her right knee. When it refused to heal and continued to hurt, doctors grew suspicious. An MRI revealed osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer that eats tissue and bone. After considering the options, one of which was an artificial knee, she and her parents chose rotationplasty.
Gabi's leg was amputated at mid-thigh. The middle third of her leg, including her knee, was removed. The remaining healthy ankle and foot were turned backward and attached to her thigh to operate as a knee joint. When she points the foot, it straightens the prosthesis. When she flexes the foot, it bends the prosthesis.
"I basically told myself, 'Get through chemo. Learn to walk. Then I could just dance again," Gabi said in a 2016 interview with The Kansas City Star.
Only 10 to 12 such surgeries a year are done in the U.S., though they're becoming more common since Gabi received international publicity.
"When we first heard about it, we thought: 'Life's hard enough as it is with half a leg and a backward foot,'" said Debbie Shull, Gabi's mom. "The only con is how it looks. When she has the leg on, you can't tell. It's only when she takes the leg off, which she does to sleep.
"We'd do it again."
After surgery and 12 rounds of chemotherapy, Gabi spent a year relearning to walk. Dancing was the next hurdle. She started with recreational dancing but was back on stage dancing competitively only six months later. Her dance teachers said she was ready to go en pointe, and "out of the goodness of his heart," Debbie said, their prosthetist handcrafted a pointe foot Gabi could use instead of her regular prosthetic.
"She's a determined kid," said Debbie. "She holds her own and does well for what she's able to do."
For the past few years, Synergy owner and artistic director Kari Herman has taught master classes at Gabi's dance studio in Warrensburg. The teenager caught her attention about two years ago, and over the past year, Gabi's worked her way up to the school's most advanced level of dancers.
"It's amazing to watch her. She literally defies all the odds and is so inspiring," Herman said. "I wanted my dancers to meet her. I wanted them to feel the inspiration I felt and the resilience. I want them to learn those lessons, that they can grow up to be great dancers, but also understand they can overcome any adversity they're ever given."
Proceeds from the shows will benefit the Zach Sobiech Osteosarcoma Fund and The Truth 365. Gabi is affiliated with the latter, a nonprofit organization that works to give a voice to kids with cancer and helps people know about the need for pediatric cancer research funding.
Sobiech was a Minnesota teenager diagnosed with osteosarcoma in 2012 at age 14. By then, the cancer had spread, and doctors told him he didn't have any treatment options. He died in 2013 at age 18. Before his death, though, Sobiech, a singer-songwriter, released "Clouds," a song about facing death that went viral, captured national media attention and received millions of YouTube views since it was released in 2012.
Though Gabi and Sobiech never met, their mothers each followed the other's story and eventually connected. They discussed Gabi doing a dance to Sobiech's popular song but never had the opportunity until Herman told Debbie about the upcoming benefit shows. The Shulls asked that half the proceeds be donated to the Sobiech fund. Sobiech's parents will travel to Colorado for Saturday's shows.
"I'll meet her for the first time face to face, and it will be the first time she meets Gabi," Debbie said. "The kids are forever connected. Here's a song a boy wrote who knew he was going to die, and he has a girl dancing to the song who survived."