By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff writer | Published January 1, 2016
MARIETTA—Before the afternoon rush at Chattooga Gymnastics and Dance school in Marietta, rhythmic gymnast Lani DeMello takes advantage of the lull to work on perfecting a new rope routine.
With years of ballet training, DeMello’s footwork is flawless and graceful. She is focused on mastering the required elements of the routine, including skipping, rope rotations and throws.
DeMello, a parishioner of Holy Trinity Church in Peachtree City, is the 2015 World Champion in Rhythmic Gymnastics for the Down Syndrome International Gymnastics Organization.
At the invitational championship, held in Mortara, Italy Nov. 13-15, DeMello competed against more than 20 athletes from the United States and other nations. She won gold medals for her ball and club routines and silver medals for the routines using the hoop and ribbon. DeMello’s overall score, based on meeting technical required elements, earned her the title of world champion.
She won a gold medal at the DSIGO World Championship in 2011 for a ball routine.
“Hoop is the hardest,” said Lani about the routines. In future competitions, she is replacing hoop with the rope.
“It’s nice and quiet,” said Lani during practice. By all accounts, she’s just as comfortable performing in front of a crowd as in an empty gym.
The only child of Ana and Donald DeMello, Lani began taking dance lessons at 4. A family friend suggested Special Olympics and rhythmic gymnastics, which is a combination of dance, gymnastics and manipulation of various apparatus.
“Lani has been competing in rhythmic gymnastics since she was 13,” said her mother.
Now 30, DeMello has participated in Special Olympics at the state and regional level as well as the program’s World Summer Games, earning numerous awards along the way. DeMello was an intern for her coach Cindy Bickman, a technical delegate, for the 2015 Special Olympics World Summer Games in Los Angeles.
“She was responsible for measuring the equipment,” said Bickman.
Lani coaches other athletes, both typical and special needs, and competes against non-special needs competitors in other programs.
DeMello’s father drives her to the school to train twice a week and on weekends from their Peachtree City home.
“It’s paid off,” said Ana DeMello about the sacrifices. “In order for you to perform at the highest level in anything, practice is a priority. Your brain needs to practice.”
This lesson about work and practice is one that Ana DeMello shares with her own math students at Our Lady of Mercy High School in Fayetteville.
Lani demonstrates to coaches, athletes and parents what an athlete with disabilities can accomplish.
“She’s been teaching that you can really perform beyond expectations,” said DeMello.
‘An ambassador to the world’
In addition to Down syndrome, Lani was born with a heart defect and had poor muscle tone, problems often associated with the condition.
In her coaching role, Bickman traveled to Italy for the World Championship. She said Lani has natural ability and flexibility but has had to work very hard to develop muscles through core strength training and with jump work for rhythmic gymnastics.
“You have to be in really good physical condition,” explained Bickman.
The owner of the gymnastics school became involved in Special Olympics after taking a performance group to an exhibition for special needs athletes. She was then asked to be a Special Olympics coach. She agreed and started with just four athletes. Now more than 70 special needs athletes train at the gym alongside the other students.
“It’s kind of my passion now,” said Bickman.
She calls Lani “an ambassador to the world … showing what people with disabilities can do.”
Coach Joey Burgess, part of team that works with her, said Lani is a diligent athlete. “She likes to work. She’s very coachable,” said Burgess.
When a correction is needed, Lani makes it. The only flash of frustration or temper comes from the pressure she places on herself to be excellent, noted Burgess.
“Most of the time, she’s very agreeable,” said the coach. “She seems to have a photographic memory.”
This memory helps her not only to learn the choreography, but also to explain routines to students in ways they can understand.
The making of Lani’s costumes is a group effort. The costumes match the apparatus. Coaches sew the costumes, and Lani’s mother and grandmother glue on the beads and sequins.
The DeMellos travel with their daughter, and Ana regularly helps behind the scenes with other competitors.
“I volunteer with hair and makeup. It’s a family,” she said.
Lani remarked that she’s often out-of-town for her July 10 birthday, having spent them at gymnastic venues in Finland, South Africa and Austria.
In addition to gymnastics, Lani loves to ride on her dad’s motorcycle with him. They have matching red helmets. She eagerly shows off her “biker chick” photo standing in front of her dad’s bike with a bouquet of flowers.
“Another activity is art class,” said Lani about her interests.
She is taking painting lessons from an instructor they met at a farmer’s market in Peachtree City. Her beautiful paintings feature flowers and nautical scenes, and with only a year of lessons under her belt, Lani is progressing.
“You can see the maturity level,” said Ana as she displays the canvases. “She’s evolving.”
Lani also loves to help her mother in the kitchen and is very precise with her culinary prep work.
“She’s the best sous chef,” said DeMello.
“The pecan pie, too,” chimes in Lani.
“The pecan pie she makes is gorgeous,” agrees her mother.
The DeMellos were excited to see their daughter climb the podium to receive her World Champion trophy. A teary-eyed Lani was overwhelmed by the moment as America’s national anthem was played.
“It was so, so amazing,” said DeMello.
Ana DeMello is grateful for all the connections made over the years with other families, coaches, and this unexpected doorway to new experiences for Lani.
Just as Lani was finishing high school, her parents were wondering what was next. That’s when the opportunity to travel outside Georgia to compete came about, and gymnastics became an even bigger part of Lani’s life.
“I’ve said this to everybody. God works in mysterious ways,” said DeMello