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Ronnie Thomas

Bethany Wilson, Danielle Johnson, Kimber Langley and Bethany Peterson debate which cheerleading uniform looks the best. Johnson lost her left foot Memorial Day weekend in a watercraft accident.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Bethany Wilson, Danielle Johnson, Kimber Langley and Bethany Peterson debate which cheerleading uniform looks the best. Johnson lost her left foot Memorial Day weekend in a watercraft accident.

Teen with 1 leg joins Priceville cheerleaders

PRICEVILLE — Danielle Johnson wanted to compete for the junior varsity cheerleading team at Priceville High School in March 2006 as a seventh-grader. Her mother said no.

“I didn’t think she was ready,” said Yvette Stackhouse. “I didn’t think she could handle the responsibility.”

A year later, some might have wondered if Danielle would consider it again. She doubted herself before telling friends she still wanted to cheer. They encouraged her.

And her mother’s response: “I believe she can handle anything now.”

Danielle lost her left foot Memorial Day weekend in a freak personal watercraft accident on Smith Lake during an outing with her father, Lavon “Bama” Johnson. She walked into the gym wearing a prosthesis.

Surgeons at Children’s Hospital in Birmingham amputated the leg about 3 inches below the knee three days after Danielle celebrated her 13th birthday.

It was clear the Sunday of the accident, and the water was warm and inviting. She was driving the watercraft and pulling her friend, Bethany Peterson, also 13, on a Big Bertha ski tube as Danielle’s father and other adults watched from a pontoon boat nearby.

She stopped the watercraft and reeled Bethany in as they prepared to join the others for lunch. She coiled the rope into the well where she rested her left foot.

Bethany got on the seat behind her, holding the tube out of the water.

“I looked and they were on the Jet Ski, taking off,” Bama Johnson said. “I turned to say something, looked back seconds later, and they were in the water.”

The wind had ripped the tube from Bethany’s hands, tossing it behind them. As the watercraft continued, the rope, now entangled in Danielle’s foot, became taut, abruptly yanking the girls off.

“I’ve cut myself real bad, Daddy,” Johnson recalls Danielle saying as he got on a personal watercraft with her. “I wrapped her foot in a towel and she held onto it. I headed for Speegle’s Camp about two miles away for help. But there was so much activity on the water, making the water really rough, I’m thinking she will bleed to death.”

He drove only about 200 yards before stopping at a boat dock. He laid Danielle down and raced up a hill to a doublewide trailer.

“By the grace of God, a woman who answered the door was a nurse in Cullman and her boyfriend was a doctor,” Johnson said. “As soon as they saw the severity of Danielle’s injury, they went to work.”

A rescue boat transported her across the lake to an ambulance, which drove her to a medical helicopter about a mile away. When Johnson arrived at the hospital, doctors already had prepped her for surgery.

“Danielle was asking a lot of adult questions,” he said. “She asked, ‘Am I going to die?’ A nurse said, ‘No.’ ‘Am I going to be able to walk again?’ The nurse said definitely. ‘Are you going to be able to save my foot?’ And the nurse said, ‘I can’t truthfully answer that. But you will be able to walk again.’ Danielle then looked up at me. ‘Do everything in your power to keep my foot, Daddy.’ ”

For 72 hours, Dr. Scott Doyle and his staff did all they could do to repair vessels, nerves and tendons.

“It wasn’t a clean cut,” he said. “I didn’t hold out much hope for that type injury.”

Johnson couldn’t accept it and refused to sign the papers.

Finally, Doyle told the distraught father that gangrene could set up and “she’d be fighting for her life. Is that what you want?”

After six days in the hospital, Danielle had to wait several more weeks for the incision to heal before Biotech Limb and Brace LLC of Birmingham could fit her.

At one point, she said, she thought “everything was just kind of over. I wasn’t going to ever get to do anything again. Maybe sports was out of the question.” She got her prosthesis in August, the week before school started.

“I said something like I wanted to cheer, but that I can’t tumble, I can’t jump, I can’t do anything,” she said. “Anna Halbrooks said, ‘Don’t let that hold you back.’ Jessica Riner agreed, and my best friend, Tara Taylor, helped Anna and Jessica push me along. So I made up my mind to go out there and give it a shot.”


The tryout was March 16. That night, Anna called Danielle to tell her she stayed until they posted the winning candidates.

“You made it!” Anna said. “And that made me feel really good. There was a bigger chance that I wouldn’t make it. I very much surprised myself.”

With help from gymnastics coach Matt Thomason, Danielle started tumbling a week ago.

Her cheerleading coach, Melea Hames, said she admires Danielle’s attitude and spirit.

“I can’t say enough good things about her. If something like that happened to me, I would hope I would handle it as well as she seems to be handling it,” Hames said.

More determined than ever, Danielle said, “I’ve always been into water sports, and I’m going to get back on that Jet Ski and take off again.”

Copyright 2005 THE DECATUR DAILY. All rights reserved.
AP contributed to this report.

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Ronnie Thomas Ronnie Thomas
DAILY Staff Writer

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