Thea Weinert loves to do backflips. The 12-year-old especially loves it when her teammates at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill help her. “I love to hang out with the girls,” Weinert says. “Gymnastics is one of my favorite sports because of the girls—and it just makes me happy seeing them.”
Two years ago, the women’s gymnastics team at UNC reached out to Weinert’s family and asked if their daughter would like to be an honorary member of their team. The invitation came as part of a campus-wide effort to be more inclusive of people with intellectual disabilities and to connect children with chronic diseases to athletic teams. Julianna Love, a senior, wanted women’s gymnastics to be a part of that movement—and that’s when she found Weinert, who has Down syndrome.
Weinert is new to the world of gymnastics. Before the COVID pandemic, Weinert did ballet and dance through Special Olympics, but her athletic direction has changed a bit. Since joining the gymnastics team at UNC, Weinert has been taking weekly gymnastics classes. The Tar Heels try to see their honorary teammate monthly. During the pandemic, that meant organizing Zoom meetings and finding socially distanced outdoor activities. Now they can meet in person. “We do a variety of activities with Thea, ranging from having her come play in the gym facility to partaking in her family’s NCDSA Buddy Walk,” says Love, a balance beam specialist. “Thea absolutely loves coming into the gym and having us help her do flips.”
Most recently, the team had a Down syndrome awareness–themed competition with Weinert as a guest of honor. She was on the floor with the team and experienced what a college gymnastics competition is like.
From the start of the relationship to now, a once shy Weinert has grown in a variety of ways. Love says that the young gymnast feels comfortable with the team and treats them all like family. “She has built strong relationships with the girls and both parties have learned from one another,” Love says.
Verena Weinert, Weinert’s mom, has also seen her daughter’s personal growth. Weinert is more willing to try new things and is becoming more independent. “It’s instilled a level of self-confidence in being able to do certain things and not worrying about it as much,” Verena says. “Like with the balance beam, when we first started, Thea would only do the one on the floor, but now she’ll go up on the high one.”
One of those girls who have had a substantial impact on Weinert is junior Sophie Silverstein, who competes in all-around. “Working with Thea has made me much more appreciative of my role as a student-athlete,” says Silverstein. “The chance to see what a huge, positive impact we can have on her life has really changed the way I approach my sport and life as a student.”
Weinert might not even be a teenager yet, however, she has the supportive backbone to find success in gymnastics and beyond.