9-Year-Old With Cancer Becomes Youngest Member of College Gymnastics Team

Krista Mae Peraldo is doing something most amateur gymnasts can only dream of: She's become an official member of the West Virginia University (WVU) women’s gymnastics team. And she's just 9 years old.

Diagnosed in March 2013 with acute lymphoplastic leukemia, a type of blood cancer, Krista Mae first met members of the team during her initial 21-day stay at West Virginia University Children's Hospital at Ruby Memorial, when they visited the hospital and stopped by to say hi to Krista Mae after learning she loved gymnastics. According to Krista Mae’s mom, Stephanie Peraldo, she was approached soon after by a social worker at the hospital who asked if Krista Mae would be interested in pairing up with WVU through Team IMPACT, a Boston-based non-profit that matches kids with life-threatening illnesses with college athletic teams.

“It’s an amazing program,” Stephanie Peraldo tells Yahoo Shine. “It has taught Krista Mae that she doesn’t have to face anything alone. Bad things happen, but there are good people in the world.”

Support is a key tenet of Team IMPACT’s mission, Maura Mahoney, director of case management and communications at Team IMPACT, tells Yahoo Shine. “This is not just for one season,” she says.  “These relationships are meant to develop over two to three years, through the child’s treatment and recovery.” Since its inception in April 2011, Team IMPACT has matched 350 kids with more than 180 universities and 10,000 student athletes. “”It’s not just about the sport, but the team’s relationship with the child,” says Mahoney, who notes that athletes will often stop by a child’s house to play Xbox or take their “teammate” to the movies.

Krista Mae is the first kid to participate in the Division I athletic program at WVU and, according to Jason Butts, head coach of the women’s gymnastics team, she's the perfect addition. “She brings a lot of positive energy and perspective to the team,” Butts tells Yahoo Shine. WVU senior and team member Hope Sloanhoffer, 21, agrees. “She just brightens the room — everyone is excited to see her and she is excited to see us.”

Krista Mae signed her “official” contract with the 17-member team this week, which outlines her responsibilities as a Mountaineer, including “I will always cheer loudly for the team.” According to Butts, for the start of the season in January, Krista Mae will be handing out awards at select home meets and may even do an exhibition (a routine that's not scored), if she’s up for it. “We’ve been teaching her a beam routine,” says Sloanhoffer, who notes that Krista Mae’s favorite piece of equipment is the trampoline. The 9-year-old and her fellow team members also spend time together outside the gym as well, with Sloanhoffer and others often stopping by the hospital to “hang out and play Play Dough” when Krista Mae is receiving treatment.

While Krista Mae declined an interview, when asked by her mom what she likes best about being on the team, she answered, “They teach me I can be strong.” The feeling is mutual, says Sloanhoffer. “She’s just so tough. It’s so impressive to me to see this kid who is fighting cancer to be so excited to jump on the trampoline. It’s a good reminder of how fortunate we are.”