When we think of people in certain careers, we envision them to look or act a certain way. Models must be tall and thin, athletes strong and powerful. These images have been seared into our minds because of what society has told us, but the truth is they’re just stereotypes.
Chelsea Werner is the perfect example of a woman who has been defying the odds since the day she was born and shining a spotlight on her abilities in an effort to show others living with a disability that anything is possible
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Born with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder caused when abnormal cell division results in an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21, the gymnast-turned-model has never allowed obstacles to stand in her way. A positive person, Chelsea doesn’t see things as limitations, rather she tackles whatever it is she’s doing with grit and determination.
“My parents raised me without putting limitations on me,” explains Chelsea. “If I try my best at something, then I’m happy. Everyone is not great at everything and that’s OK.”
It’s having that positive attitude and an ambition to be the best she can be at whatever she’s doing that has brought Chelsea the success and happiness she’s found today.
A four-time U.S. Special Olympics gymnastics champion and two-time world champion, Chelsea fell in love with the sport at a young age. Despite having low muscle tone, a problem people with Down syndrome often face, she went on to not only excel at the sport, but earn medal after medal as well.
Being a part of the gymnastics community not only brought Chelsea success in the gym, it also led to some modeling opportunities. And as they say, the rest is history!
At her best when she’s in front of an audience or a camera, Chelsea fell in love with modeling and has now turned her focus on bringing representation into an arena that for a long time has lacked representation.
In just a few short years, Chelsea has appeared in numerous print and digital campaigns for brands like H&M, Aerie, and Adidas. In 2016, she was invited to walk in New York Fashion Week.
Inspired by Chelsea’s journey and her commitment to achieving goals the world assumes you can’t, BELLA sat down with the model and athlete to learn more about the ways in which she is shining a light on the beauty of inclusivity.
You became involved in gymnastics at a young age, but it wasn’t the first sport you tried. What was it about gymnastics that made you want to continue?
I loved having teammates. Once I had my first Special Olympics competition when I was 8 years old, I was hooked. I loved the crowd cheering for me!
Although gymnastics was difficult for you, especially in those early days, you didn’t give up. What was the driving force that kept you going?
I really didn’t take gymnastics seriously at first. Once I found a coach that believed I could be a good gymnast, I started training much harder and began to really improve. And I was getting more attention, which I loved! I also started training with gymnasts who were not in the Special Olympics. I had great role models and much higher expectations.
You defied doctor’s predictions and not only went on to become a gymnast, you became one who competed and medaled multiple times. How does that feel knowing you surpassed the odds and proved those doctors wrong?
I’m very proud of myself. I love that I give hope to those coming up behind me.
Besides the physical skills you learned throughout the years, what else has the sport taught you?
Gymnastics has taught me that hard work pays off, and it has given me a lot of confidence in myself.
Where did you get the nickname “Showtime?”
My dad gave it to me. During competitions you get a little bit of time to warm-up before you compete on each event, and mine were usually pretty bad. Once the judges saluted me and I would compete, I would do perfect routines to everyone’s surprise. When the pressure was on, I was at my best.
Through gymnastics you discovered modeling. How has this whole new path came to fruition?
I was on the “Today” show for something related to gymnastics. H&M saw me and asked if I wanted to model for them. I loved everything about that experience.
You’ve been featured in multiple fashion campaigns and worked with some big name brands. Do you have a favorite?
I’ve loved every campaign I’ve ever done. I just love being a working model.
How does it feel seeing yourself in these campaigns?
I have to admit, it’s pretty exciting. I feel proud and look forward to what’s coming next.
In 2016, you had the opportunity to walk in New York Fashion Week. How would you describe the experience?
It was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. I was very new to modeling and absolutely loved it!
Right before the pandemic, you signed with London-based Milk Model Management, and now that they’ve lifted the quarantine requirement for U.S. citizens, you’re going to be headed across the pond for the month of September. Can you share what you’ll be doing while there and what are you most excited about for this trip?
I love traveling and meeting new people. I will be going to castings, doing photo shoots, hopefully some new campaigns, and some sightseeing. I’m open to all opportunities that come my way.
Seeing models with disabilities has been rare up until this point, but you’re working to change that. Do you feel inclusivity is starting to happen within the industry and that tides are turning when it comes to featuring a wider range of representation?
When I started it was extremely rare. Every year it’s getting a little bit better, but I do think people with disabilities are still very much underrepresented.
You’ve faced many challenges in life, but have worked hard to get where you are. Standing beside you through all of this is a great support system. Along with your parents, whom do you credit with being a part of your “support” team?
My gymnastics coach, Dawn Pombo, has made a huge impact on my life. She never treated me like I had any limitations. She helped me become a world champion.
Through all of the work you do, the consistent theme is dedication and perseverance. While your followers see you in your success, what they don’t always see is what it takes to get there. Can you share some of the struggles you’ve faced, and how you overcame them?
Many coaches didn’t consider me a “real gymnast.” They would have low expectations and I was left behind while my teammates would progress up and up. Competing outside of the Special Olympics was very hard for me. I took last place for a very long time. I continued to work hard, and even though it took me a lot longer to acquire advanced skills, it made it that much more of a triumph when I did.
What message do you have for other young people with disabilities who are trying to carve out their own niche?
Do what you love! Surround yourself with people who believe in your dreams. When looking ahead, where do you see yourself ? Is modeling something you’d like to continue doing? Are there other goals you have your sights set on?I really love modeling and am planning on breaking down some more barriers. I’m back with my original gymnastics coach, Dawn, after many years, and I am so excited to be learning new skills that I never dreamed I would be doing!
Photography by Ale Poveda @ale_poveda
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