There isn't a sound in the gym as Lani De Mello stands alone on the mat, waiting for the classical music's soothing sounds to begin. In her lime green leotard, she is about to compete at the 2010 Special Olympics USA Games. She has been dancing since age five and has been with Special Olympics since age 13. "I love people cheering for me and I also like cheering on my friends," De Mello says with a smile on her face.
Spectators gather in a gym surrounded by brick walls and traditional brown bleachers. Voices echo from the crowd as De Mello is in the finals of the ribbon competition. She has traveled the world for gymnastics, but for this competition, she is representing Special Olympics Georgia.
During the competition, she tries to focus on breathing. She remembers to point her toes and keeps a firm smile. Like every athlete, she feels the nerves but overcomes them, having been through it before. It's a flawless routine.
"Lani is at the highest level," says Jennifer Gunnels, Special Olympics Georgia's rhythmic gymnastics team coach for the 2010 USA Games in Nebraska. "We don't even have anyone else to match her right now."
When she competes, nothing else in the world matters. She's by herself, moving to the beat of the music.
"Lani started taking ballet long before I met her. So, rhythmic gymnastics was the perfect sport for her because the basis of rhythmic gymnastics is ballet and dance and you add the hand apparatus," says Cindy Bickman, De Mello's longtime coach. "So, it's been really fun to watch her learn to do her ballet but using all her hand apparatuses."
"I have learned to relax and perform from my coaches as they train me to be the best athlete I can be in competition."
She's earned countless accolades in several disciplines. She has accomplished all there is to as an athlete. So, she does what so many athletes do later in their careers—make the jump into coaching. It's time to take what she has learned and pass it on to the next generation of gymnasts.
"I have learned to relax and perform from my coaches as they train me to be the best athlete I can be in competition," De Mello says about competing. "Now I enjoy teaching other athletes to do the right things and help them be stronger. Coaching is about observing an athlete's routine and supporting them in improving that routine. They need to smile, point their toes, listen to the music and I remind them."
She served as an International Technical Official for rhythmic gymnastics at two Special Olympics World Games. She volunteered at the 2010 Special Olympics Latin American Games and has had many other opportunities to showcase her coaching and leadership abilities.
In addition to Special Olympics, De Mello competes with an all-inclusive artistic and rhythmic gymnastics team and when they travel internationally, athletes with and without disabilities, parents and even grandparents tag along. They all perform together. In 2019, they were selected for the FIG Gala for the World Gymnaestrada in Austria. In preparation, one of her jobs was coaching her mom.
By day, her mom is a school teacher. She calls the shots, but when being coached, the roles are reversed. Suddenly the daughter does the shot calling. And during the interview, when De Mello and Bickman started talking about it, she couldn't resist giggling, saying her mom can be bossy, but she expects it to be serious when she coaches.
"She never used her muscle memory because I always had to teach her to do the right steps," De Mello says about coaching her mom.
The coaching routines look different now due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. But De Mello, her fellow coaches and athletes remain in good spirits. On Saturdays, they have the Champions Project—a Zoom class hosting Special Olympics athletes from 12 different countries. De Mello leads the ballet.
"Every time I think Lani might have reached her potential, she surprises me by learning something new. She's a gymnast who loves her sport and works hard to succeed—just like everybody else."
In an ordinary world, they'd have to wait four years to see each other. Now, it's weekly. When Bickman asks De Mello if they've kept more connected during the pandemic, her response was, "yes, 100 percent."
She continues to hold a steady relationship with USA Gymnastics and competes in sanctioned events. De Mello was featured in an athlete highlight post on Instagram.
"Every time I think Lani might have reached her potential, she surprises me by learning something new," Bickman says to end the featured post. "She's a gymnast who loves her sport and works hard to succeed—just like everybody else."