Grace Gallegos, a 2016 West Las Vegas High School graduate who gave up a promising softball career to help the Dons to a state championship in cheerleading, unexpectedly died recently.
Her mother, Viviana Sena, said the Office of the Medical Examiner told her pulmonary edema was the cause of death.
Gallegos, 20, was attending classes at Central New Mexico Community College in Albuquerque with an eye to becoming a social worker and last month had enlisted in the New Mexico Army National Guard.
She was to attend the Dons cheerleading meet on Saturday when word went out that she had died that day, said her cheerleading coach Isabel Cavazos.
“We got the call and the team just fell apart,” she said.
Although she had never been a cheerleader before, as a junior, she decided to stop playing softball and try something new.
“When she started cheering, she found a new passion,” Sena said. “She loved being on that court cheering. She had an aura about her. She was a beautiful light that just shined. When she walked into the room, she had this smile, you had to notice her.”
Short, at just 5 feet, 1 inch, Gallegos was perfect for being lifted, especially with her effervescent smile, Cavazos said, and she immediately fit right into the team.
“She was motivational for our team,” she said. “We became a big family together.
“She was always trying to motivate everybody. She was a great leader. She was always making everybody laugh. But when it was time to work, she went 150 percent all the time. She was a great athlete. She picked up stuff. You tell her to try something and at first she was so afraid to fly. But she’d say, ‘I’ll do it coach, tell me what you need me to do,’ and she’d get up there and fly. If she didn’t hit it, she’d do it again and again.”
She even helped recruit a number of guys for the team, so it could compete as a coed squad.
One of those guys, D’Angelo Padilla, said Gallegos always had a presence about her.
“Gracie was such a good friend to me,” he said. “She was always happy and was one cheerful person. Every time I would see Gracie, she was always in a good mood. Gracie and I became close in the year 2016 we cheered together and that’s what brought us close.”
When the team failed to repeat as state champions in her senior year, it was Gallegos who cheered others up, Padilla said.
“One of my favorite memories with Gracie was for state 2016 when we lost. I was crying and she came up and told me, ‘No matter what, win or lose, you’ll always be a state champ to me because you worked your butt off and came to show them what you deserve.’ ”
Although her time was done at WLV, athletic director Richard Tripp said she will always be a Don.
“Losing an athlete, or even a former athlete, so suddenly such as this is hard,” he said. “It’s like losing a member of your family. Gracie was and always will be a member of our West Las Vegas family. She was one of the first athletes I got to know when I took over as the athletic director, and the thing which caught my eye was her passion for cheering and her spirit to enjoy life. She could light up a room when she walked in.”
Cavazos’ daughter Krysten Cavazos worked closely with Gallegos when she got to the team.
“She would do a dance move or clap like a seal to make people laugh,” Krysten Cavazos said. “She wanted everyone to be happy and to be together. She was motivated to win and would always push us. She was my single-base flyer our first year and my main flyer her second year, and she strived to get every stunt, pushing herself to the limit, which pushed us to work hard. It always paid off.”
Assistant cheer coach Lawrence Valdez said it was her attitude that set Gallegos apart.
“What I remember about Gracie was her attitude, always positive,” he said. “She always strived to do her best. She would get so mad at herself when she wouldn’t throw her back handspring. I would literally spot her with my fingertip, no support whatsoever, but she swore she needed me, but she had it by herself.”