A perfect landing for 3 Special Olympic gymnasts

Nothing can stop these Victorians from participating in something they love – gymnastics. 

Francesca Neri had always wanted to do a cartwheel from a young age. Having cerebral palsy, a condition that impacts body movement, wasn’t a consideration for her.

Francesca Neri‘I saw these gymnasts doing cartwheels on TV and it made me excited to do the same, but mum was hesitant at first,’ Francesca said.

Francesca has restricted movement in her left side and there was concern she would get injured.

However, to help her achieve her ambition, Francesca began training at Melbourne Gymnastics Centre (MGC) in Windsor, which she’s now been doing for 9 years. And through that, she’s spent 2 years actively participating in the Special Olympics program, which is quite an accomplishment. But more than that, the positive outcomes of Francesca's commitment are not confined to the gymnasium alone as her mother has seen firsthand the transformative effects in her personal life.

Now she has enhanced strength, Francesca effortlessly carries more plates to the table and fulfills her volunteer duties at a childcare centre by comfortably lifting older babies.

Francesca's zest for life and increased confidence is undeniable, evident in her participation at various events throughout Melbourne. She’s active in her neighbourhood too, involved with diverse community groups.

Francesca NeriEarlier this year Francesca competed in the Level C Special Olympics event, delivered by Gymnastics Victoria as part of the Senior Victorian Championships. She placed first and is excited to advance to the next level with more choreographed movements. Her ability to do a front lean on the uneven gymnastics bar was recognised at the championships and is an impressive achievement, highlighting her increased physical strength.

‘Gymnastics is really good for my body and even though it was hard to do things with one hand at first, it was great to have the opportunity to try a lot of things,’ Francesca said.

‘The teachers are fantastic – my coach Hazel has been a big influence in my gymnast journey, the care and attention has been a great support.’

Walking along a beam without the full coordination of the brain is a huge feat and one that Francesca and her family are proud of.

‘I like how it’s mixed abilities and that I can participate with other athletes - I’m not treated differently,’ she said.

‘It shows that people are doing their best, even though it might look different.’

While she hasn’t been able to complete a cartwheel, all her other achievements – in gymnastics and in her life - have been extraordinary.

Francesca will compete in the National Clubs Carnival later this year on the Gold Coast.

Strength behind the scenes

TamikaBoth Tamika Simpson and Brenton Ponza found their experiences at the Senior Victorian Championships just as rewarding. Working behind the scenes in roles that contributed to the success of the event, they didn’t allow their respective Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy conditions to impact their involvement.

With more than 30 years’ experience as a gymnast, Tamika was certainly in her element, proudly coordinating score cards with the judging panel and greeting the athletes in her role as Event Duty Manager. With a smile from ear to ear, the experience has boosted Tamika’s confidence as she became more open to opportunities that came her way.

‘I’ve tried out zip lining, dancing and even started a new job,’ Tamika said.

Her mum, Silvija commented that Tamika is now standing a little taller and talking a bit more.

Brenton also came with extensive gymnastics experience, first getting involved with Boroondara Sports Club Go Zone when he was 8 years old.Brenton Ponza

‘I was very excited to work at the Senior Victorian Championship, but I was also very nervous as I did not know what to expect,’ Brenton said.

Brenton’s willingness to give things a go pushed him to open up possibilities, representing those with cerebral palsy and similar conditions as a participant in gymnastics. Through his involvement, Brenton felt connected and valued at the event.

‘I’m a gymnastics volunteer coach and I give feedback using my electronic communication device which helps researchers better understand how people use Augmentative and Alternative Communication to communicate to others,’ he said.

Gymnastics Victoria and its affiliated clubs provide inclusive environments for people with intellectual disabilities the opportunity to participate in sport. It’s proud to offer the chance for athletes to participate and compete in Special Olympics, including Men’s Gymnastics, Women’s Gymnastics and Rhythmic Gymnastics.

Gymnastics Victoria is funded through the Victorian Government’s Together More Active program.