Taken from the winter 2019 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here.
Following a day of rain, a huge expanse of brightly lit lawn stretches out in front of us at the Kips Bay Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx. Local youths flock here to enjoy its athletic facilities, including a fitness pool and an indoor running track. It’s the perfect place to photograph an athlete. But the grass is slippery, making movement unpredictable.
Chelsea Werner is on the lawn enjoying her literal and figurative moment in the sun. She wears a bedazzled black leotard streaked with patriotic red, white and blue, a green ribbon trailing from her ponytail. Bruno Mars’ “24k Magic” – a personal favourite – plays. When she suddenly arches backwards, it’s into a graceful back walkover. She nails the landing and smiles. The camera clicks.
“There ya go!” she beams.
Chelsea cheerfully repeats the phrase often over the course of the afternoon, as she tirelessly executes a number of impressive moves for the camera – it’s her first cover shoot, after all, and a great chance to show off. I notice that her mother, Lisa, says it often herself – a shared expression of small triumphs between mother and daughter.
Chelsea Werner is a Special Olympian, model and generally groundbreaking young woman. She’s defied physical and professional odds. Her work ethic is intimidating. Her smile speaks a thousand words she cannot herself. She’s become a symbol for so much to so many. But Chelsea is also a 27-year-old Californian who wants to be a zombie bride for Halloween and loves dancing to Bruno Mars.
Born with Down’s syndrome, Chelsea was two years old before she was able to walk, and parents Ray and Lisa were told by doctors she would always have low muscle tone. Yet, when it came time for Chelsea to choose a sport as she matured, she took up one which required everything it seemed she lacked: gymnastics.
“She didn’t really (show) any passion or love for anything else,” says Lisa, who acts as her daughter’s interpreter. (Chelsea has limited speech.) “But we tried gymnastics and I think initially she just loved having teammates – that was a big part of it. That’s when she really started loving it and when we thought there was something to this – as soon as she was in a competitive environment.”
Chelsea was eight when she took up gymnastics – late for competitive training – and didn’t make progress for years. But the Werners had hope. They also had a secret weapon: coach Dawn Pombo, who worked patiently with Chelsea over the years and developed her own training methods. In Dawn, they found a special advocate and motivator who helped Chelsea to start competing in both disabled and standard competitions by the age of 13. And, in Chelsea, Dawn found something of a muse.
“She had a lot of energy! It was more about running around than learning gymnastics,” Dawn says over email on her early days coaching Chelsea. “The obstacles we faced were primarily the fact that she could barely walk on the balance beam without falling and I was supposed to be teaching her skills. She didn’t yet understand that you have to keep practising in order to learn. She was also very stubborn so we had to get creative to work around that! I’m not ashamed to say that I bribed her with things I knew she loved if she would try again.”
“Dawn is really tough!” says Lisa. “A lot of times at practice, and even at competitions, people would think her coach was being mean to her. We’d get comments: ‘Why is Chelsea’s coach so mean?’ And she would teach Chelsea new things that they thought were dangerous. It was never a situation where Chelsea was actually in danger, but a lot of people would just be questioning why we were doing it. Even though Dawn comes across as tough, she has a real soft side to her. She’s tough on Chelsea to get good results, but she definitely has a soft and passionate side. She’s almost like a second mom to her.”
Under Dawn’s coaching, Chelsea went on to win the Special Olympics National Gymnastics Championship four times, the Down Syndrome International Championships twice, and almost countless other medals – an unprecedented achievement for a woman with her disability. I mention there must be a unique level of trust the Werners place in Dawn, who is now semi-retired, to allow for this freedom to experiment and progress. Lisa agrees: “We haven’t found anyone else that even comes close to that. So, that’s been challenging for sure.”
In a video called “Born Different” for Barcroft TV, you can see Chelsea’s affinity for floor routines and the uneven bars. There’s a sense of power and grace in her movements to rival mainstream gymnasts. Interestingly, the feedback she receives from her coach (Casey Hall, another member of Chelsea’s coaching team) is also pretty standard in its combination of encouragement and critique. When Chelsea misses a move or fails to execute a step, they go back and try again. The expectation is that she can, and will, do better. Chelsea gets frustrated like everyone else, and is relieved when she troubleshoots and excels. She’s a performer and physical problem-solver, just as all athletes are.
But, as Lisa suggests, many challenges remain. “Right now the only gym that wants (Chelsea) to be part of the team is, like, an hour and 20 minutes away,” she says. “So that’s part of it. Another part is competing with regular gymnasts.” At the moment, the Werners are conversing with Dawn again, who is encouraging Chelsea to return to competitive life. “We’re contemplating another world championship,” says Lisa. “She hasn’t done one in a while. It would be for Down Syndrome International in March in Turkey. Typically, she just competes as a regular gymnast so it’s hard to ever be up on the medal stand and win anything big. As she’s worked so hard, we’re thinking maybe we should entertain this idea...”
It’s understandable that the Werners must deliberate this conundrum. Physical limitations and differences in training styles are a harsh reality that impose limits, even as athletes like Chelsea seemingly defy all odds. It’s all part of an under- the-radar dialogue happening in sports. In a provocative recent piece for The Outline, hockey player Matt Hartman explores the tendency to turn disabled athletes into heroes, when some never asked for it (including himself – he has one hand). He connects this with the industry’s tendency to fetishise, and police, certain bodies: Michael Phelps’ ‘natural’ swimmer’s body is hailed as God-given, while Caster Semenya’s runner’s physique gets called into question.
“Chelsea inspires me every day... She never complains, no matter what happens. She’s fearless. I was the opposite
of that growing up. I’m kind of in awe of what she does” – Lisa Werner, Chelsea’s mum
Miles Hill, a wheelchair-bound college student and basketball lover, tells Hartman: “I can not play and be bored, or I can play and lose.” Instead of competing with able- bodied athletes, he ended up joining an ‘adaptive’ wheelchair basketball team and is satisfied with being able to participate in his sport of choice. This is a common solution: for the disabled, sports might be seen less as seriously goal-minded and more about achieving personal pursuits in the context of a supportive community. However, Hartman points out, the Paralympics claims to be an “elite sport”, and it’s also becoming more common for adaptive and able-bodied championships to be held simultaneously to increase their sense of competitiveness. Overall, disabled sports are still in the early stages of professionalisation, and it’s difficult to project just how far they will come to ensure athletes such as Chelsea stay sufficiently challenged.
“For the last few years, we’ve just been maintaining (Chelsea’s) skills, we’re not really building,” says Lisa. “It keeps her in shape and she loves it. Plus, she has great role models, and (her success) has opened up opportunities.
I ask Chelsea if gymnastics still sparks joy.
“Yeah!” she chimes in with a big smile.
“She likes to be in front of a crowd, that’s for sure,” says Lisa with a laugh.
Gymnastics may be Chelsea’s first love and the achievement that made her stand out, but it’s unclear if it will define her professional life in the future. Recently, she has ventured into the world of modelling, a rather unconventional – and exciting – turn of events. If the disabled have a disadvantage in the world of sports, they face an even bigger one in fashion. In fact, in an industry that has struggled to reflect diversity on numerous levels, the disabled may be something of a final frontier. In 2019 – 21 years after Dazed collaborated with Alexander McQueen and Nick Knight for an unprecedented cover shoot featuring disabled models, including athlete Aimee Mullins – fashion remains significantly ableist. But there have been ripples of change: Grace Strobel and Madeline Stuart, models with Down’s syndrome, have walked the runway, and disabled activist Jillian Mercado is signed with IMG.
A cynic could view these appearances as tokenism, a rigid industry doing the minimum to seem politically correct. But, on a human level, every marginalised person given a platform has the potential to make a huge impact. For someone like Chelsea – who is defying representational odds in multiple industries – her inclusion in mainstream cultural experiences is that much more vital.
Chelsea has indeed walked the runway for Oakland Fashion Week and other events, and appeared in print and digital campaigns for major brands. (She brightens and says, “Havana!” when we bring up a Cuba-based fashion shoot for H&M, her very first modelling assignment.) The gymnastics community has awarded her honorary status as an ambassador for the sport, and she recently appeared in a special event with fellow Olympic gymnast Laurie Hernandez, where they trained together for a day. She filmed a part in a movie with Romanian gymnastics legend Nadia Comăneci, who has supported Chelsea’s journey for years. And she will star in an upcoming cosmetics campaign alongside Aly Raisman, the former Olympic medallist and Team USA Gymnastics captain.
But with a rising profile come more and more requests for all manner of appearances, which can create its own problems. “She gets asked to do talks,” says Lisa, giving a recent example. “We just got an email from Rutgers University; they’re having an event in March. It’s all about people who have made great lives for themselves despite having challenges. They wanted Chelsea to be a part of it and they said it was going to be like a Ted talk format. I emailed them back and said, ‘Thank you for your interest, but Chelsea’s big challenge in life is speech.’ Then they said, ‘Well, we really want to make this work – we’re open to any format you could suggest.’ So I said, ‘Why don’t we play a video where we have a question-and-answer kind of scenario?’ So, we’ll see.”
Whether it’s finding a way to compete in gymnastics or participating in media despite her speech difficulties, so much of Chelsea’s day-to- day revolves, you begin to realise, around finding unique solutions to these challenges. After all, her nickname is ‘Showtime’, so chosen by her dad for her ability to turn any situation into a winning one – as long as she has an audience. During gymnastics practice sessions, says Lisa, prospects could look bleak. “She could be on the balance beam, crawling, just having a terrible warmup. And I’d think, ‘This is going to be terrible.’ She would even do that at national and international competitions, but then as soon as it was time to compete in front of the judges, she’d always do perfect!”
Does that performative streak come from her parents?
“I don’t think so!” says Lisa, laughing. “My husband and I are the opposite of that, so it’s kind of funny. She just loves the camera. I think that’s why the modelling has been good for her.” She recalls a recent conversation she had with a photographer who noticed Chelsea’s photogenic qualities. “I said, ‘When you take pictures of her, it always amazes even me.’ He said he thought it was because when she’s in front of the camera, she’s natural. She’s not trying to look pretty, she’s just being herself. I saw Tyra Banks on a show a few years ago where they asked her, ‘What makes a good model?’ and she said it’s somebody who, walking down the street, you’d never think they were a model, but when they’re in front of a camera something happens. That’s been Chelsea pretty much her whole life.”
Lisa speaks with total admiration for her daughter’s accomplishments, and doesn’t shy away from acknowledging how hard they have been to come by. “Chelsea inspires me every day!” she says. “Just to see how hard she works. She puts up with a lot. She never complains, no matter what happens. She’s fearless. I was the opposite of that growing up. I was very fearful. I would have never gotten in front of the camera; I would be a terrible model, a terrible gymnast. I’m kind of in awe of what she does.”
But Lisa has become a fighter herself. Not only is she Chelsea’s core companion, chauffeur, spokeswoman and champion, she is the one who broke down seemingly unyielding walls to make it happen. “I’ve changed so much, because we have had to advocate,” she explains. “When (Chelsea) started preschool, we had to advocate for everything. I mean, it’s unbelievable. She has two older brothers, so it was all new for us, having to fight for every single thing. To get her in a class with regular students, to get her therapy – so, yeah, I really learned to advocate. I’m not that sensitive any more.”
On set, Lisa and Chelsea laugh together as they look at photos from the shoot taken on Lisa’s phone. They enjoy the novelty of Chelsea playing around on the sports complex’s pommel horse – traditionally, a male gymnast’s apparatus. But Lisa is also there as a reassuring anchor, spotting Chelsea as she attempts one-handed cartwheels and walkovers in an unfamiliar setting, and knowing just what to say to refocus her if it doesn’t go perfectly. (“Darn it!” exclaims Chelsea when she makes a misstep.)
Lisa is on the lookout, always. For her daughter’s wellbeing, of course, but also for opportunities for her to be challenged, to grow and to tell her story with dignity. She’s aware of Chelsea’s inspirational power and enormous potential to help others with disabilities – and their families – to make a change. “She definitely has had a huge impact, especially on parents who have children with a disability,” says Lisa. “We get emails and messages all the time from parents saying that (Chelsea) gives them so much hope. So that’s probably the most rewarding thing. They always ask for advice but I always say, ‘Your child is going to be so much more capable than anybody gives them credit for. Find what they love and then find a team that supports that.’ Like I say: it only takes one person.”
Hair Tomo Jidai at Streeters using R+Co, make-up Yumi Lee at Streeters, talent Chelsea Werner at We Speak Models, set design Whitney Hellesen at Webber, photographic assistants Siggy Bodolai, Jacqueline Tosline Davis, Timothy Mahoney, styling assistants Ogun Gortan, Met Kilinc, DeVanté Rollins, set design assistants Gregg Huff, Erick Benevides, production Steven Williams at ×2 Productions