By Nathalie Bonney @nathaliebonney

A 26-year-old woman with Down Syndrome – who didn’t start walking until she was two - has succeeded in the world of gymnastics and is now hoping for more success as a model

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Videographer / director: Adam Gray
Producer: Nathalie Bonney, Ruby Coote
Editor: Beth Angus

When doctors told Ray and Lisa Werner their daughter had Down syndrome, they were shocked - there had been no complications or warnings during the pregnancy. 

Doctors went on to tell the couple, from Oakland, California, that their daughter would have low muscle tone and be unable to excel at any physical activity, which has since been proven wrong as their daughter Chelsea now competes – and wins – in gymnastics competitions and, more recently, has taken to the catwalk as a model. 

Chelsea Werner is proof that determination and hard work go a long way. 

Chelsea, who struggles with her speech, told Barcroft TV: “I like model and gymnastics. I feel really happy and beautiful."
Dad Ray explained: “When she was five or six years we tried soccer and that didn’t work too well: she kept finding trees to sit in the shade! And so then we tried a real basic little gymnastic program and she seemed to like it a lot.”
But although she enjoyed it, for the first two years Chelsea made little progress. 

Mum Lisa said: “Initially we had no expectations.

“When we look back now the first few years she really didn’t show that much promise but once we started with a coach that really treated her like other in gymnastics and put in the hours. She started improving really rapidly and every step of the way we were shocked, I mean we just never knew that she’d take it to the level she has.”

Chelsea started to train with her long-time coach Dawn Pombo, as part of the Special Olympics  programme..

Ray said: “Dawn treated Chelsea just like any other gymnast. 

“It was quite funny because other parents were horrified that the coach is actually yelling at an athlete with Down syndrome and I just started laughing like – ‘go and get her.’”

After the Special Olympics programme in Northern California closed down, Chelsea continued training with Pombo with USA Gymnastics directly. For years she would consistently place last among her teammates but that didn’t stop her from training until she could finally master the skills that her teammates had taken half the time to learn. 

Lisa explained:  “A skill that would normally take a gymnast a year would take Chelsea a couple of years - for instance one skill on bars called the kip, it took her five years.

"I kept telling her coach let’s just skip that, let’s just move on, she is not gonna get it and her coach was like I really think she can. So I think we just had to learn to have patience because Chelsea didn’t really mind how long it took she would go there day after day, month after month working on the same skill over and over. 

“It was so impressive when she would finally get something after years of working on it.”

Ray added: “I think she was successful also because she has that good athlete quality that when you fail you have a short memory and you just move on to the next thing so if she fell on the beam it wouldn’t affect her."

Chelsea’s favourite disciplines are the uneven bars and floor but she has won medals in all four disciplines. In 2012 Special Olympics announced its first national Gymnastics competition, Chelsea was national champion for four consecutive years. 

She also cleaned up at the first Down Syndrome International Championships in 2013 in London, taking gold medals in every category, including the all-rounder; she then successfully defended her title in the 2015 championships in Milan.

Coach Casey Hall has been training Chelsea for two and a half years at Classics Gymnastics in Tracy, California and says when it comes to gymnastics, Chelsea is like anybody else on the team.

She said: “She trains like everybody else. She competes just like everybody else. She is a great asset to our team. She has worked well with all the other girls and has taught us all a lot.

She doesn’t give up. She goes back, she works hard. She will do something over and over and over just as you ask of her.”

While gymnastics is still a part of Chelsea’s life, she is now embarking on a new career as a model – and with appearances at New York Fashion Week and in campaigns for H&M and Adidas, it’s got off to a great start.

When asked if she prefers photo shoots or the runway, Chelsea says “Both!” Most recently she walked at Oakland fashion week for brand Myra Leana.

The brand’s chief marketing officer Christina Fullmer says they chose Chelsea to model for them because she’s an ideal role model of what it means to overcome challenges.

She said: “She is a perfect example of what it is to be a woman who was born with a challenge from day one and she just has fought everyday of her life and doesn’t let society inhibit what it is that she wants to do.

“She doesn’t let them dictate what her dreams are and she works so hard to overcome these challenges and never gives up.”

Signed to We Speak NY modeling agency, Chelsea is looking forward to the next phase of her life.

Lisa said: “She doesn’t think she is different and she probably has the highest self esteem of anyone you’d ever meet so I really don’t see that she sees that as an issue at all.

“She broke the barriers in gymnastics and I think she can do it and in the modelling world too and so we are fully dedicated to that and really wanna see her achieve that.”