Amina Dallahi is 10 years old. Like any 10 year old girl, she loves to dance and especially loves gymnastics. But like approximately 400,000 people living in the US, Amina has Down Syndrome. She is also a cancer survivor.
Amina started gymnastics at the age of 2 and was hooked from the beginning. Since people with Down Syndrome have decreased muscle tone, gymnastics was a perfect activity to increase muscle tone and improve coordination, core strength, spatial awareness, and balance, as well as foster social interaction amongst peers. People with Down Syndrome also have increased laxity in their joints, and while hyperflexibility is an advantage for Amina in gymnastics, it also causes difficulty with muscle stabilization. Because of this added laxity, Amina has frequent x-rays on her neck to ensure that there is no risk of injury to the spinal cord. In addition to physical challenges, people with Down Syndrome also experience cognitive and speech and language delays. Due to the cognitive challenges, Amina requires a one-on-one assistant in gymnastics. For the majority of her gymnastics career, Amina’s mother, Jeannie, was her aid, until Amina “expressed the desire to not have her mom come with her.” That’s when Jeanne trained Sam Lemay, a high school student and gymnastics teaching assistant, to work with her: “This has been a very successful model where Sam… can help keep Amina on track throughout the class and spot her whenever needed. Sam steps back whenever possible to give Amina as much independence as possible.”
But while gymnastics is Amina’s true passion, there was a time where her health kept her from the sport for two whole years. In 2008, just one month before Amina’s 4th birthday, she was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, a diagnosis that stunned her family. “She had been healthy and thriving until one day she didn't want to walk,” her mother recalls, “at the time, her verbal skills were very limited so it was difficult to know what she was feeling.” Amina immediately began a chemotherapy treatment at Children’s Hospital Boston which lasted 25 months. During that 25 months, Amina lost her hair, suffered serious infections due to the immune suppression caused by chemotherapy (including losing the lower right lobe of her lung), went through multiple blood transfusions, surgeries, spinal taps, and chemo infusions, required near daily oral chemo medication, and experienced painful side effects from the treatment. Amina missed a full year of school, and by her second year of treatment, was only returning to her preschool classroom when she felt well enough to go. Despite it all, Amina still attended private speech and physical therapy, and stayed fit by turning on her music at home and dancing. During the two years of her treatment, Amina did not do any gymnastics, but she loved it so much and desperately missed it. Jeannie Dallahi knew her daughter would be “back” when she returned to gymnastics, and in June 2010, Amina had her last chemotherapy treatment and celebrated her 6th birthday. That fall, she started kindergarten and made her triumphant return to the sport of gymnastics.
For the past three years, Amina has been on Gym-Ken Gymnastics’s Gym Stars team, an in-house program for gymnasts looking for a little more than a recreational program. Though they do not compete outside of the gym, Gym Stars do up to four in-house competitions per year where they wear a team leotard and showcase their routines in front of judges. Amina’s own self-motivation and her teachers’ high expectations of her have been a recipe for success. Through Gym Stars, Amina has learned how to perform under pressure in front of a judge and an audience, and her triumphs with the sport have generated great pride, confidence, and self-esteem.
In 2012, Amina turned 8 and was eligible to compete in the Special Olympics, however, New Hampshire Special Olympics does not offer gymnastics as a sport, so with permission from Special Olympics Massachusetts, Amina joined Legends Team of North Andover and competed in their 2013 Summer Games. There are 6 levels in gymnastics for Special Olympics: A, B, 1, 2, 3, and 4. Levels A, B, 1, and 2 are all compulsory skills and routines (meaning that the routines are all the same). In levels 3 and 4, the athletes can perform their own unique routines and choreography, but must perform required elements within the routine. In her first Special Olympics competition, Amina competed as a level 2 and won gold on floor, silver on vault, and bronze in bars, beam, and all-around.
This year, Amina’s family decided to have her compete as an independent from New Hampshire in Special Olympics competitions in Massachusetts. In New Hampshire, if an athlete is at least 16, they are eligible to compete at Special Olympics Nationals and Worlds, which would not be possible if she continued to compete for Massachusetts. With their eyes on the future, Amina’s family felt that this was the best choice for her, and the only hurdle that remained was finding a coach. That is when two local gyms came together and teamed up for Amina, and Spectrum’s own Cari O’Shea stepped in. Cari’s mom, Cheryl, was Amina’s physical therapist, and they both volunteer for Special Olympics. Cari agreed to be Amina’s coach, and so began Amina’s training sessions at Spectrum to prepare for her upcoming competitions.
Amina’s first competition in April was an assessment round where the athletes were scored and subsequently placed into different divisions for the Boston Summer Games. On June 8th, Amina represented New Hampshire and Spectrum Gymnastics Academy as she competed at Harvard in front of dozens of family members, teachers, and friends. She is the only gymnast from New Hampshire currently competing in the Special Olympics. She won gold on vault, bars, and floor, bronze on beam, and silver in the all-around. Amina performs cartwheels, round-offs, handstands, forward and backward rolls, bridges, pull overs, back hip circles, arabesques, levers, leaps, and jumps, and has competed in 5 in-house competitions at Gym-Ken and 2 Special Olympics competitions.
While Cari had volunteered for the Special Olympics, she had never actually coached a Special Olympics gymnast, and being a part of Amina’s journey was a special and rewarding experience. On her time with Amina, Cari said, “My favorite part was watching her progress from the time we started to when she competed. I loved standing by the floor and watching Amina perform her routines and nail everything we had worked on. Her hard work paid off and I loved being a part of it.”
I asked Jeannie how gymnastics had affected Amina’s life, and her response brought tears to my eyes; so much so that I just had to include the entire response in my story:
" I credit gymnastics for helping her to build great strength, coordination, core stability, and endurance. This even helps her in the classroom at school. Gymnastics has been inclusion at its best for Amina: she is treated the same as the other kids despite her disability, and very high expectations are held for her, which is why her skills are so strong. She has established strong bonds with teachers and mentors, and the gymnastics floor is a place where she feels she belongs. Amina's speech and language skills are quite delayed, so gymnastics provides an opportunity for her to excel in an activity where speech and language less important. Amina has made friends through gymnastics, and most of all, it gives her motivation to work hard. I highly recommend gymnastics because it works the entire body, and strengthens all muscles and builds a strong core which is so essential. With proper supports in place, gymnastics can bring great joy and confidence to kids."
I’ve been involved with gymnastics for nearly 20 years, and I’ve seen a lot of incredible things and heard several stories (many of which I have shared here on this blog) that blew me away. Amina is one of the most inspiring gymnasts I have ever had the good fortune to meet in my time with this sport. At just 10 years old, she has overcome more barriers and obstacles than most people face in a lifetime, and has done so with an unbreakable spirit and a smile that touches everyone around her. Amina represents every lesson that gymnastics ever taught me: hard work, perseverance, self-confidence, courage, and above all, passion. She is a wonderful role model to people of all ages, and is proof that gymnastics is a sport for everyone. On the gymnastics floor, Amina is not just Amina: person with Down Syndrome, or Amina: cancer survivor; she is just simply Amina: gymnast.
Peace, love, and gymnastics,
Spectrum Gymnastics Academy
26 Buttrick Rd
About the Author
Coach Sarah is a former Rhode Island College gymnast, NCGA National qualifier, All-American, current gymnastics coach and judge, and contributor for the gymnastics news source, The Gymternet. Find out what's going on at Spectrum and learn more about the incredible sport of gymnastics!