California kid vaults to gymnastics nationals while coping with disease

His rise was so sudden and unlikely this year that around here they call him — to turn Chinese into English — "hei ma."

"Dark horse."

That's the nickname that came from Xiaoping Li, a former Olympian, who is one of Kieran Cacciatore's coaches at South Coast Gymnastics.

The kid, just 12 and a sixth-grader at La Veta Elementary in Orange, Calif., has emerged in recent months at a dizzying pace, notable in a sport where balance is everything.

On Friday, Kieran will compete in the 2017 Men's Junior Olympic National Championships in central Florida.

"He made it to nationals," says his father, Gary. "That's a difficult thing to do. Not too many kids in this sport do that. That's what I want advertised. I just don't want him to be treated any differently."

That's why today we won't make a bigger deal than is necessary over the fact Kieran achieved this while coping with cystic fibrosis.

At home, his two older brothers, Jamie and Aidan, certainly have never hesitated playfully roughing up the baby of the family.

Kieran's path to gymnastics began in part because — like so many kids — he just wouldn't stop somersaulting onto the couch and tumbling everywhere else.

"It was partially to keep him healthy," says his mother, Robin, "and partially to save the furniture."

And if Kieran wasn't otherwise such a regular kid, how could he follow a four-hour practice — part of his regular 20-hour weekly commitment — by wanting to stick around the gym and play for another hour?

Besides, his daily schedule, which begins at 6:40 a.m. and includes multiple sessions with a high-frequency chest wall oscillation vest and regular doses of antibiotics and enzymes and more medication taken through a nebulizer, a schedule so demanding that his parents handle it in split shifts — Gary takes the mornings, Robin the evenings — is the only life Kieran knows.

So, really now, what's the big deal?

"I wish I was as tough as he is," says Gary, who grew up as an accomplished wrestler. "I could have been an Olympic champion if I had his mentality."

Kieran, like most kids who are the youngest in an athletic family, followed the well-defined footprints that led to other sports.

Jamie was a football player, the kicker for four seasons at Azusa Pacific. Aidan is a baseball player, a catcher at Golden West College.

But nothing fit Kieran as well as gymnastics did. Baseball, for example, crept too slowly, Kieran the little squirt who, while on defense, would pass the time between batters by doing cartwheels.

Still, Robin waited until Gary was out of town on business before enrolling Kieran, then age 4, in his first gymnastics class.

When he returned home, Gary's response: "How is this going to affect baseball?" But it took watching only a couple gymnastics practices for the father to realize he had the question backward.

"We're so glad he loves this sport because it's probably a big reason why he's healthy," Gary says. "They're upside-down, doing handstands. You watch them practice and think, 'How in the world can they do that for four hours?' "

Kieran hasn't been hospitalized since 2013. Along with his daily treatments, he has a regular appointment every three months at CHOC Children's, where the nurses always ask to see the latest videos of his gymnastics exploits.

They are among his biggest fans, along with his doctors, his teachers, Robin's favorite checker at the local grocery store.

"Anyone with eyeballs," she says, "I'll show them these videos."

And why not? The 12-year-old with the ripped abs is something to see, Kieran's pommel horse routine a spectacular flair of stout shoulders and blurred legs.

His emergence in April at the regionals in Reno would have been unforeseen just a year ago.

But the past few months — thanks mostly to continued good health and growing confidence — changed the outlook for Kieran so quickly that Gary acknowledges he initially thought the spiking scores were a fluke.

"He just works so hard," Gary says. "I've coached a lot, and I love that kind of kid. That's the kind of kid you want to have on your team."

When Kieran's spot in the nationals was announced in Reno, Robin says she lowered her sunglasses from the top of her head and began crying.

Gary, who likes to record his sons whenever they're competing, panned the arena with his camera, hoping to capture his wife's reaction, knowing it would be emotional.

When he couldn't locate her, he instead focused on Kieran, who showed little reaction. Typical kid.

May is National Cystic Fibrosis Awareness Month. The fact May also is the month her baby will compete nationally, Robin says, is "divinely designed."

"With this, we don't know about tomorrow," Gary says. "We don't know what tomorrow will bring. We're grateful for every day. I don't know how he does it, to be honest. It's amazing."

It is amazing, amazing and unexpected. But then, that's just normal for dark horses.

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