By Thomas Liljedahl Staff Writer
The Bristol Press
August 27, 2015
While the New England Patriots fought all last season to reclaim the Vince Lombardi trophy, Terryville native Karen Link has been fighting since she was 16, and is now living out her dream as a cheerleader for the Super Bowl champions.
“I’ve always been really motivated,” the 24-year old Link said. “When someone tells me I can’t do something, it just makes me want to do it more.”
Link had a lot of people telling her what she could not do after a near fatal car accident changed her life forever.
The date was Oct. 27, 2007, and Link had barely begun her senior year at Holy Cross High School in Waterbury.
“My friend and I were actually on our way to take our SATs,” Link said. “It was a rainy day and the roads were wet. The driver hydroplaned and lost control of their car around a corner, crashing head on into another vehicle.”
As the passenger, Link sustained the only serious injury, a fracture in her spine. Following the accident, she was presented with two options.
“I was told that I could either go on bed rest for months, or get a spinal fusion,” Link said. “I chose to go with the surgery because I was never one for staying still.”
Link had been dancing since the age of 3, and started running cross country in middle school. By her senior year, she dropped running competitively to focus exclusively on dance. Several times a week, she and several friends would practice at Dance Arts Centre in Bristol. They often attended competitions on weekends.
“I danced with the same core group of people since fifth grade, they are like family we spent so much time together,” Link said. “They were some of the first people to visit me in the hospital.”
According to Link, the support was overwhelming when she emerged from the eight-hour procedure the day after the accident. She was showered with cards, flowers, candy, and close to always had a family member or friend at her side.
On the following Monday, Holy Cross made a school-wide announcement, informing the student body of Link’s condition. From there, the influx of support increased and Link could not have been more grateful.
“There was so much uncertainty at the time for me,” she said. “All the love that was being shown definitely helped.”
If she ever hoped to regain the athleticism she once knew, Link had to get to work. With two rods in each side of her spine and screws throughout, she began the arduous recovery process.
First came aquatic therapy at a rehabilitation center in Waterbury. Aqua therapy consists of a series of movements in water, designed to make a recovering body feel weightless and relaxed. After a few months of regaining her strength in the pool, Link was walking, and eventually jogging, on a treadmill.
When she began attending Endicott College in 2008, the school had just created their first ever dance program.
“I was nervous, but interested in getting back into dance,” Link said. “I made them aware of my injury and limitations and we were able to work around it.”
During her freshman year, she focused on modified movements, but felt nearly 100 percent as a sophomore. It was during her sophomore year that she first attended a New England Patriots game at Gillette Stadium.
“As soon as I saw the dancers out there I had my mind set,” Link said. “I wanted to be on that platform. I wanted Gillette Stadium to be my stage.”
So in 2012, the same year she graduated from Endicott, Link tried out for the Patriots’ cheerleading squad in March. Out of over 300 entrants, she was one of the final 40, but was not selected to the team.
With Gillette Stadium still on her mind, Link moved to New York for a year, where she worked at a fashion and beauty public relations firm.
“I always envisioned myself doing something with dance,” Link said. “I hadn’t given up on being a Patriots cheerleader, so I tried again.”
In preparation for the 2014 tryouts, Link ate healthy, worked out, and danced incessantly. This time around, she was selected to the final squad. She was taken on quite the ride when the Patriots went on to become Super Bowl champions for the first time since 2004.
“It was an amazing season for the team and for us,” Link said. “These girls have become like my sisters.”
After a short offseason, there was no guarantee Link would earn a spot on the team this season. Just like the last open tryouts were held, over 300 prospective dancers showed up. Once again, Link proved to be one of the best, and was selected to the squad for a second consecutive year.
All year round, Patriots cheerleaders attend everything from charity promotions to parades to events with sponsors. Their real season begins Thursday, Sept. 10, when the Patriots play host to the Pittsburgh Steelers at Gillette Stadium for their home opener.
“I knew it would be a lot of hard work and I went through it, I’m here,” Link said. “A lot of the doctors and experts and people around me told me that I would never be the same again. They were right. I’m better.”