“When Ellen was born, yes there were some challenges, but we had the joy of a new baby. To see the look of tragedy in other people’s eyes was very difficult," Claire, Ellen's Mum.
Soon after Ellen’s birth, her parents Claire and Paul were told she had Down syndrome.
Claire remembers worrying about people’s reactions and the struggles her little girl would have in life. But Ellen has never felt having a disability made her different to anyone else.
In Abu Dhabi in March, Ellen showed the world what she could do, representing Australia at the Special Olympics World Games. She won five medals for gymnastics, including three golds.
Standing on the podium, her face was a picture of excitement, pride and pure joy.
Ellen has worked hard at gymnastics – since she was only five years old.
She is one of over 7,000 people with an intellectual disability who experience the joy of sport supported by Special Olympics Australia. But almost 711,000 Australians have an intellectual disability. So, it’s obvious that thousands upon thousands are still missing out.
When you think of the incredible benefits of physical activity and social connection in a person’s life, this is just not good enough.
Every two hours in Australia a child is born with an intellectual disability. Unfortunately, research has found they will go on to experience more chronic illnesses like heart disease, arthritis, asthma and diabetes, than the general population.
Studies exploring why suggest that being less active plays a major role. A barrier to this changing is lack of opportunities to participate in sport.
When Ellen was in kindy, her parents saw the importance of her being included in exercise – for fun and fitness.
Netball was one sport they tried. But as Ellen got older, the opportunities for her became so limited she could no longer join in.
Thankfully a local gym ran a squad for children with disabilities where Ellen could begin developing some skills.
“Having low muscle tone meant it was a big effort for her to get through a day in mainstream kindy, then go out to gym at night,” says Claire. “But she loved going to gymnastics.”
At first, sociable Ellen’s greatest interest was making new friends who she saw every week in class.
Her passion for gymnastics really took off when she started taking part in competitions with others of similar abilities as a member of Special Olympics. Receiving the encouragement and recognition of medals helped her realise she was making progress.
"I am proud that my gymnastics has improved over the years," says Ellen.
"I love competing against others at my level. I started on Level 1 and I am now on Level 3. I Have made some lovely friends and we like training together. We support each other. If I didn’t do gymnastic, my life would be very different and not as good."
"At the World Games in Abu Dhabi I felt happy, proud to be representing Australia, excited and strong," says Ellen.
The chance to represent Australia at Abu Dhabi in the Special Olympics World Games has lifted Ellen’s confidence to a new level.
Travelling overseas with others her age, away from her parents, was a teenage rite of passage she could easily have missed out on.
For Claire and Paul, who flew over on the same plane, watching their daughter walk through the airport with the rest of the team, all proudly decked out in green and gold, was an incredible moment.
Tears fill Claire’s eyes when she talks about it.
As it is for others in our Special Olympics family, sport has opened doors for Ellen.
She has made long-time friends, and has been acknowledged in her local community, where she has featured in the local paper and given a talk to council.
Her parents love seeing Ellen’s joy at gaining confidence and a sense of her place in the world.
“In mainstream gymnastics, Ellen couldn’t get that sense of achievement,” says Claire. “It’s essential for people like Ellen that there’s the pathway to sport offered by Special Olympics. It gives people with intellectual disabilities a fair go. It’s a very visible and tangible way of communicating that everybody’s important, and everyone can achieve.”
But some people are just starting on their sporting journey.
Whether they are five years old like Ellen was, or 55, they need and deserve a place where they can be accepted, embraced and supported in sports participation.
Special Olympics is the place.