Sunday, September 18, 2011

Gymnast with 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 god, 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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Twilson9608 said...

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