Chelsea Werner is not your average gymnast.
Sure, she has been training since she was a young girl and is very diligent in her love for the sport, but that’s not what sets her apart. Chelsea Werner has Down Syndrome. Based on common understandings of people with Down Syndrome, you wouldn’t expect them to be a world-class competing gymnast.
Down Syndrome, which is classified as an extra copy of the 21st chromosome, has a few universal physical attributes, one of which is poor muscle tone. As a result, Chelsea shouldn’t be able to perform gymnastics routines. But you can say that her perseverance is what makes it possible.
Chelsea started taking gymnastics when she was 4 years old, following her Down Syndrome diagnosis. At the age of 8, she began to train for the Special Olympics. That is when she met her current coach, Dawn Pombo. They had a rough start at first. Because of Chelsea’s lack of muscle tone, it was difficult for her to execute the most basic gymnastics moves, but she and Pombo powered through the obstacles.
“She was very excited, but physically, she could barely walk on the balance beam one direction and back without falling. The obstacle in the beginning was strength. She just lacked muscle tone,” Pombo explained to the Today Show. Once Chelsea began to develop the physical strength to match her emotional excitement, she began to compete.
However, her next obstacle came in 2006 when the Special Olympics cut their gymnastics program in Northern California, forcing Chelsea to not only fund her own expenses, but also to compete as her own team. She can do all forms of gymnastics: balance beam, vault, and a floor routine complete with backflips. The things she is capable of continue to astound everyone.
Chelsea’s skills as a gymnast have taken her many places to compete, traveling around the country and to England. She even got to go to Argentina as a part of an international Special Olympics commercial. One of the biggest attributes to her success is her relationship with her coach. Since Dawn Pombo is a coach at a regular gymnastics facility and not a Special Olympics-funded one, she has the allowance to push Chelsea the same way she would push a student without Down Syndrome.
“I love that she treats Chelsea like the rest of the kids,” Chelsea’s dad, Ray Werner, explained in an interview. She has gone to mainstream schools and trains at least 12 hours a week. Now that she is 22, she works with a program made for older gymnasts called Excel, which is a way for her to keep her skills fresh but not put in the same amount of rigorous training as when she was younger.
“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.”
We sure hope she does!