Remember Lani DeMello? She was born with intellectual disabilities and a heart defect, and her doctors didn’t believe that she was ever going to amount to much. As they discharged Lani from the hospital as an infant, doctors told her mother, “Take her home. She’s never going to achieve anything.” Flash forward 25 years and Lani is a Special Olympics gold medalist many times over and a source of inspiration to her friends and family. Now, when not competing, Lani gives back to the community both through her work at a local health clinic and as a Special Olympics coach, serving as a mentor and role model to other athletes.
As a young girl, Lani showed an interest in dance and spent several years taking classes at a local ballet studio. Ana recalls watching her daughter’s recitals and straining to see Lani at the back of the stage. Although she tried hard, Lani could never quite keep up with the other dancers and was never given the opportunity to shine. Then, when Lani was 13, a friend recommended that she sign up to participate in Special Olympics. There, Lani finally had the support she needed. The change, Ana says, was almost immediate. At Lani’s first gymnastics competition, she won almost exclusively gold medals and, for the first time in her life, realized her own potential.
From that day on, Ana and her husband Donald made the commitment to drive their daughter 52 miles twice a week to the nearest gymnastics training facility in Georgia. To them, the commute was nothing if it meant that they could bring happiness and achievement into their daughter’s life. Now, 52 miles seems insignificant when compared with the distances that Lani has traveled to compete nationally and internationally. Ana says she is still astonished at the opportunities her daughter has had in her life. “When you have a child with an intellectual disability, you think your world is going to be closed. Special Olympics has opened a whole new world for Lani and given her opportunities that we never dreamed would be possible for our daughter.”