Chelsea Werner, gymnast turned model, is shattering stereotypes by following her dreams and becoming a strong voice for people with different abilities.
Chelsea was born with Down syndrome, a common chromosomal condition that causes developmental and intellectual delay. Doctors told parents Ray and Lisa Werner that Chelsea would have low muscle tone and be unable to excel at any physical activity. After a failed start with soccer, the family turned to gymnastics to help Chelsea build her muscles.
According to Lisa, “Initially we had no expectations. When we look back now at the first few years she really didn’t show that much promise but then we started with a coach that really treated her like others in gymnastics and put in the hours. She started improving really rapidly and every step of the way we were shocked. We just never knew that she’d take it to the level she has.”
Gymnastics coach Dawn Pombo recalled, “Chelsea’s ability in the beginning was not very good. 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.”
Chelsea was a more than a willing student and Dawn pushed her beyond her limitations. She was soon doing back handsprings and was improving in events such as the floor and balance beam.
Chelsea then faced another challenge when the Special Olympics committee of Northern California dropped its gymnastics program in 2006. The family had to find a way to pay for Chelsea’s training and travel. Undaunted, Ray formed Chelsea’s Quest, a nonprofit organization that helped raise money and allowed Chelsea to compete as a one-person team at Special Olympics events.
For three years she usually came last place every time, but it didn’t matter to Chelsea. “Then there came a time when she did understand what the lower score meant. That began a whole new journey of training her to understand if this is what you want to do, then you have to work harder if you want to get a medal, ” Dawn said.
Chelsea began training as hard as any gymnast, and her efforts soon paid off. She won multiple national titles and the International Down Syndrome Foundation World Championships title. She also participated as a special guest in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) women’s gymnastics championships. The girl who once could barely stay upright on the balance beam advanced to a level many thought was never possible.
Now, Chelsea is bringing that same confidence and persistence to the fashion world. She refused to give up after being initially turned down by a few fashion agencies. “I went to some modeling agencies that said there is no market for models with Down syndrome. My parents and I don’t give up. There is a market and I’m showing them!”
Eventually, Chelsea was discovered by We Speak after the fashion agency saw her on social media. We Speak promotes body positivity and inclusion by casting healthy models from all walks of life who have positive attitudes and unique features. She joins other models with Down syndrome in the fashion industry to promote inclusion and continues to pave the way for people of varying abilities and backgrounds.
“I don’t think people with Down syndrome are represented enough. The more we are represented, the more people will see how capable we are.”
Chelsea said that when others see her in gymnastics or modeling, it can help them realize that “they are capable of doing things maybe they didn’t think they could do. I hear from parents a lot that I give them hope for their children with disabilities.”
She has since walked at New York Fashion Week and appeared in campaigns for brands such as H&M, Adidas, and Tommy Hilfiger. Chelsea is the ultimate sports and fashion rule breaker and she shows us that when you put your heart and soul into something, you can do anything!