Incredible talent and determination

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Feb 26, 2007
A heartwarming tale of a young lady who is rising to the challenges of gym.


Gymnast refuses to be grounded by Down syndrome

Chelsea Werner is far more than just a gymnast with Down syndrome. The 19-year-old Danville resident is the kind of athlete who inspires others to greatness and challenges the perceptions of possibility.

"If more parents could see what Chelsea could do, I think they'd realize their kids could do so much more than anyone gives them credit for," said Werner's mom, Lisa Werner.

Chelsea Werner wasn't supposed to develop the necessary physical attributes. She wasn't supposed to get past the most rudimentary level of artistic gymnastics. She wasn't supposed to show the persistence needed to stick with such a rigorous sport.

Now Werner has one national championship to her credit and is in England this weekend trying to add an international title. Victory or not, a winning message will be on display for those paying attention.

"I feel like a star," Werner said.

Now more than a decade into her pursuit, Werner isn't just dabbling in gymnastics as a recreational outlet. She is a real athlete with real muscle tone -- and a real competitive drive. (The YouTube footage doesn't lie.) Though it has taken her longer, Werner has nonetheless climbed to a stage that most gymnasts never reach.

"A lot of people know Chelsea's been doing gymnastics for 10 years or so," Lisa Werner said. "But they're always surprised when they see videos of what she's capable of doing because I guess it's pretty rare."
Chelsea's coach, Dawn Pombo, could see the potential early on. But even she is surprised by the way Werner has rewritten the book on what's conceivable for Down syndrome children in sports. She is doing routines that other kids with Down syndrome simply don't attempt.

"She has exceeded my expectations 10 times over," Pombo said. "I don't think of her as special. I know she is, but I don't treat it that way. I just believe she can do it."

Werner is an accomplished gymnast who has worked her way up through the ranks at a mainstream gymnastics facility called Gymfinity in Livermore. She does it all: vault, balance beam, even a floor exercise replete with back flips.

Her achievements are all the more remarkable in that Special Olympics of Northern California dropped its gymnastics program five years ago. Since Werner receives no financial support from Special Olympics, her father, Ray Werner, established a nonprofit organization -- Chelsea's Quest To Be The Best -- to help defray her travel and training expenses.

Nonetheless, as a one-person team competing in her first national Special Olympics event, Werner ventured to Marietta, Ga., in May and bounced away with the all-around gymnastics championship. A longtime coach who saw her told the Werners and Pombo that Werner would have blown away the competition at the quadrennial Special Olympics World Games in Athens, Greece, in late June.

To gauge just how talented she might be on a world stage, Werner will participate in the Down syndrome International Gymnastics Championships on Sunday in Leicester, England. As always, she will surely be flashing her infectious smile during routines.

"I call her 'Showtime,' " said Ray Werner. "She just loves performing for people."

Perhaps it was a blessing that Chelsea wasn't coached through a Special Olympics gymnastics program. By enrolling in Gymfinity's open program when she was 8, she was pushed a little harder than she might have been otherwise.
It was difficult at first, but Werner was paired with Pombo, a coach who had never before worked with a special-needs child, so she didn't have preconceived notions.

Pombo eventually found a high degree of persistence and passion inside Werner, latched onto it and extracted something beautiful and uplifting.

"You can ask any coach in this gym, I was afraid at first," Pombo said. "I couldn't understand her. I didn't know how much she understood me. And after working on something, she'd want to go sit down, or she'd complain that her stomach hurt and go hide in the bathroom."

Once Pombo could hold her attention, Werner quickly advanced beyond the most basic levels and was doing intermediate work after the first year. She reached the highest level Special Olympics recognizes in her midteens and has been doing advanced skills the past few years.

She may soon start pushing even further through a program called Excel, which is open to older female gymnasts who don't want to put in 50 hours a week but still desire to keep their skills sharp.

Werner practices for three hours, four times a week and often doesn't want to leave. While her verbal skills are still limited, she has no problems communicating with Pombo as the routines become more difficult to teach. Even her parents are amazed that she just keeps advancing.

Lisa said her daughter has to put in as much as 40 times the work most gymnasts must do to master a maneuver, but her work ethic is relentless.

"I told her mom she could probably do this until she's 30 if she wants it," Pombo said. "She probably will, because it's so good for her. And I don't see many kids who want it as badly as she does."

The Werners believe Pombo's tough-love approach with their daughter is a big key to that.

"I love that she treats Chelsea like the rest of the kids," Ray said. "She gets yelled at if she needs to be. Every now and then I'll see a new parent's face when Dawn yells across the gym, 'Chelsea, get your butt over here!' The parent will look at me with an expression that says, 'Oh my LATAWNYA, she's picking on a poor little Down syndrome kid' and I just start laughing. Chelsea doesn't take it personally at all."

The Werners also have done as much as they can to give Chelsea a normal, happy and active life. She attended San Ramon Valley High in Danville and was on the cheerleading squad. She remains at the school in an extended learning program. She serves as an honorary member of the Cal women's gymnastics team and performs exhibitions at Haas Pavilion and elsewhere.

Werner also has traveled extensively, including an unplanned excursion last year to Buenos Aires. A Special Olympics filmmaker, Ignacio Villanueva, saw footage of her gymnastics skill and paid for her, her mother and Pombo to fly to Argentina to take part in an international Special Olympics commercial.

Werner's best memory of that experience? "I learned the tango," she said, grinning.

But behind that grin lies a true competitor -- not to mention a true champion for possibility.

"I don't know what drives her," Pombo said. "She's just a go-getter."
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I have followed Gymfinity's YouTube for awhile now & saw her several months ago. So amazing!
Such a great story! I love hearing about children with special needs or a disability of one form or another (be it physical, mental, learning related, etc.), who are encouraged to pursue what they CAN do, rather than dwelling on the things which they cannot. What a great experience for this gymnast, but also her coaches, teammates, and competitors. I hope this story inspires parents of other special needs children to get them involved in whatever it is that makes them happy, you never know the possibilities!
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CHECK OUT THOSE MUSCLES! Girl's more ripped than half of my athletes!

I am so so glad that there are coaches at a fairly known facility who are teaching kids with disabilities real gymnastics. She looks like she loves it.
She's beautiful. My niece has Down's, and I plan to show her this video. I always thought gymnastics would be excellent for Down's kids because their muscle tone tends to be very poor. Not Chelsea's!! I hope to convince my brother to enroll my niece!!!
Thank you so much for sharing!!
Wow, she's incredible!

There was girl with Down Syndrome on my HS gym team last year, her name's Brooke. She's most kind and supportive member of the team, even if her skill level is lower than the rest of the the team. If anyone has a bad day, she's always there with a smile and a hug. She's around level 3 skill level, with the exception of bars.
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What a wonderful story!! Her smile could light up a room. It's obvious how much she enjoys what she does. Thanks for sharing this with the group.
oh what a lovely kid she is! i absolutely love her back walkover on beam, she's fearless! i have also followed her on gymfinity's youtube site for a long time. i hope that there would be more parents and coaches like hers.
This is a great story, thanks for posting! I wanted to say how amazing she is but then I thought about it... she's just doing what she loves and that's wonderful! Everytime people find out I'm Deaf and go gymnastics they think it's sooo amazing and I'm such an inspiration etc. I'm not. I'm just a regular girl doing what I love. And so is Chelsea! People mean well, but no one wants to be defined by their disabilities. It's a fine line to walk between finding someone to be inspirational and empowering them and finding someone to be inspirational and patronizing them, without even meaning to. I'm proud of being Deaf but I'm not the Deaf gymnast, I'm just a gymnast! It's just really great to see anyone with a disability out and doing what they love. Gymnastics is one of the sports that really isn't open and accessible to people with all sorts of disabilities, it's not in the Paralympics or the Deaflympics or the Special Olympics. We're all told gymnastics just isn't a sport for us. But it is! It's great PT for young kids whether they're Deaf or have Downs or whatever. It builds confidence and coordination and athleticism and discipline and best yet, it's so much fun!! I hope there are more stories like this because I think the gymnastics community could really benefit from reaching out to disabled groups and having more programs for them.

:gets off soapbox:
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Thanks for getting ON your soapbox. Gymnasts w.disabilities aren't inspiring for doing gymnastics while disabled....they're inspiring because gymnastics is INCREDIBLE.

/former gymnast invisible disability, coach to some kids who see 'she'll never do that' as a challenge
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Well said, Bri! That's kind of what I was going for with my previous statement, but you put it so much more eloquently. It's about finding what you love and facing whatever obstacles may be in your way to achieve what you set out to achieve.
Like CoachGoofy, I'm someone with an invisible disability and have been told some things that, while the person meant well, could be taken offensively if I chose to take it that way.
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No problem guys. I just told CoachGoofy this but I'll share it. I've been very blessed to be raised by a mom who is really well versed in disabilities (former interpreter, special ed teacher and administrator, adaptive ski instructor...) so she was never afraid or tried to make me "normal" by forcing me to learn to talk or doing an invasive cochlear implant surgery (all things not effective for my level of deafness, I could barely hear a jet engine if I were 5 feet from it!). I was able to sign and be proud of my Deafness. But she also always pushed me to do my best and never ever ever let me use it as some sort of excuse. In gymnastics or school or even when I got my first job when I was 16 (it was so hard no one wanted to hire the Deaf girl, I ended up folding clothes at a mall store lol) Anyway because of this I have the ability to help people understand people with disabilities.

I've told the story here before about my struggles with gym. The first preschool class I was enrolled in when I was 3 was ok. Apparently the gym was hesitant but after the first day it was fine. From then on out I was very lucky to have a great coach at my gym who actually learned to sign. I stayed there from pre-team to L 10/beginning of elite training (that didn't last long... at all!) But then I decided to go out for high school gymnastics. I was the only freshman that year. The best girl on the team had done gym in Texas before she moved to our mountain town that had no USAG gym close. She was a L 8. The rest of the girls had done gym as kids at the rec gym in our area and were L6s and L7s. I was the only L 10. But the coach didn't want to coach me, she said it'd be better if I tried for the Special Olympics, because it was "for people like me". My teammates weren't better. It was really just a case of nasty girls but it just reminded me how so many people see me as "Brianna that Deaf gymnast" not "Brianna the gymnast".

Also, as a "disabled" gymnast everyone at my club gym thought I was so inspirational, especially the parents. They'd always try to play me up in fundraising and my school newspaper and yearbook and the local papers would try to do stories on me (even when I tried to make sure they focused on my gymnastics it was always about how I can't hear and sign lol). But then when I went to start coaching everyone was a little hesistant. Some of the parents tried to move their girls out of my classes (I mostly did rec but I helped with the L 4 and 5s). It was so ridiculous, especially since there's only been 2 L 10 gymnasts at my gym in the last 10 years or so, the other girl who is 6 years older than me is the new head coach. Then there's me! It's so sad so many people have invisible disabilities and feel like they can't share them, but then we encounter this kind of discrimination. I can't hide mine (for the most part, once I got pulled over for forgetting my headlights and the cop wouldn't believe I was Deaf, my friend said he just kept yelling at me).

I think everyone in this group is really great about disabilities. I think it's the rest of the world that still struggles. You don't give a "normal" kid a gold star for going to practice, why a kid with Downs or who is Deaf or who is autistic or has an amputation, etc.
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That's fantastic! It is so great to hear when someone with DS is taken seriously. I will have to pass this along to my friend who has a DS daughter. Thanks for sharing.
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