Darrell Cross had spent plenty of time trying to teach his nearly 10-year-old daughter, Michelle, how to ride a bike, but even training wheels weren’t working.
A bicycle shop employee told him to take off the pedals and let her “Fred Flintstone it,” or push herself on the bike using her feet. Turns out, he was on to something.
The pedals removed, Michelle guided the bicycle through the neighborhood for an entire weekend. Soon after, with pedals reattached, she was riding like a pro.
“It introduced us to this whole new world of being able to go out and ride a bike together as a family,” Darrell Cross said.
Such moments are usually ordinary, but this was extraordinary.
Michelle, now 16, was born with cerebral palsy, which has left her with limited balance and movement on her right side, including limited to no mobility in her right arm. Simple things, like tying shoes and putting her hair up, become daunting.
However, in the world of athletics, her competitive fire burns bright.
Michelle, a junior at Trabuco Hills High, is a three-year member of the Mustangs’ cross country and track teams and has three bronze medals from last spring’s CIF State Championships to her credit. Before her foray into distance and track running, she was a standout in youth soccer.
“She played goalie, but she would bat that ball away with her left hand,” said Melanie Cross, Michelle’s mother. “Some of the high school coaches knew her because they’d seen her play.”
Michelle’s competitive spirit and fun-loving personality are the result of an incredibly supportive neighborhood in Rancho Santa Margarita.
Growing up wearing braces, splints and, for a time, an eye patch, Michelle worked hard to keep up with the neighborhood kids. Falls were plenty, but encouraging words and support were abundant.
None was more prevalent than older sister Emily, who was a constant in helping Michelle into the family car, tying her shoes and displaying patience in teaching her everyday tasks, including how to get dressed on her own.
“She’s helped me a lot,” Michelle said. “She’s been influencing me with everything, she’s always been assisting and I’ve always looked up to her. When I was little, I would always follow her.”
Emily Cross, 18, also played soccer as a youth, but transitioned to running when she didn’t make the girls soccer team on campus. It gave her an opportunity to spend more time with her father, who had run marathons.
Naturally, when Michelle reached her freshman year in high school, she followed suit, but her disability didn’t make it easy. Because of her limited balance, she has had more than her fair share of spills on the track. Her limited right side mobility forces her right foot to pound into the ground with each step.
“She’s a grinder, she’s persistent, she comes from great parents who have instilled hard work,” said Dennis Kelly, Trabuco Hills’ girls track and field coach. “She’s dedicated to what she does ... she never complains about the workouts or the weather.”
Michelle gets back up and she forges on, her mother said. At a meet at Mission Viejo High, one fall led to a momentous opportunity. It was there the family learned from an assistant coach at Mission Viejo that CIF had added a competition at the state meet for athletes with physical disabilities.
In June 2016 the family was in Clovis, where Michelle competed in the state meet in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races. She won bronze at all three events. Amy Watt, now competing for the U.S. in the Paralympic Games in Rio, took gold in all three.
“I got goosebumps,” Darrell Cross said. “It was the first year they’ve done all-inclusive kids, and they were so helpful. We’re planning on state again this year.”
“I couldn’t believe my girl was out there competing and her name is on a board and they’re cheering,” Melanie Cross added. “It was awesome.”
Emily Cross, now at San Francisco State, said she got updates on her sister’s progress.
“It’s outstanding, beyond my words; I don’t know how she does it,” she said. “Running is hard enough as it is, and sometimes her foot hurts when she runs, or she can’t feel it because of the constant pounding on the ground, but she still does it. She’s my role model in that way.”
Trabuco Hills cross country coach Liam Clemons said Michelle has never used the disability as an excuse.
“I feel like I can endure and handle more things than other people can because I have to work harder for it,” she said.
“I know I have a lot of hard work to do, so I’m just going to hang in there.”