Young German gymnast already a winner at Special Olympics

By Annegret Hilse and Riham Alkousaa

BERLIN (Reuters) – Annabelle Tschech-Loeffler’s journey to the Special Olympics started with a simple question from her older sister’s trainer: “Doesn’t Annabelle want to do it?”

The 13-year-old, who has Down’s syndrome, is competing against over 100 gymnasts at the Special Olympics World Games in Berlin.

Joining artistic gymnastics classes four years ago was rare for those with Annabelle’s condition in Germany, where only 7% of the country’s 87,000 sports clubs are open to people with disabilities.

But the family’s conversation with the trainer who was starting to coach her sister, now 16, and who also has a child with a disability, opened the door to her getting involved and now competing on the world stage.

“It was all fought for now … to sit here right now … that’s such a thank you. It’s great,” Annabelle’s father, Markus Tschech-Loeffler, told Reuters.

Thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities compete together in 26 sports over nine days at the Games.

Going for gold won’t be Annabelle’s first fight.

The family had to go through countless battles to achieve more inclusion, starting with enrolling her at a school where she could take classes with non-disabled pupils, rather than being isolated at a special school for children with disabilities, the father said.

Inclusion is the core ethos of the Games.

In each of the sports, athletes are categorised depending on their performance, not their disability, said Tom Hauthal, the head of the German delegation, which has 413 athletes, of whom Annabelle is the youngest.

“What is important for us is what the athlete is able to do,” Hauthal said, adding that the one of the event’s goals was to open up sports clubs by showing that inclusive training is not more complicated.

“Our core goal is to put the living situation of people with intellectual disabilities at the centre of society,” Hauthal said.

The irony of some of the events taking place at Berlin’s Olympiastadion, whose history goes back to Nazi Germany where people with mental or physical disabilities were targeted for murder, is not lost on the organisers.

“You can’t get around this topic … The opening ceremony takes place in the Olympic Stadium … It also has a history,” Nadine Baethke, a spokesperson for the event.

For Annabelle’s father, making sure his daughter can focus on her routine and not get distracted by other competitors with thousands of people watching is the biggest challenge.

“We would be mostly happy if she does and shows exactly what she can do … If there are medals, that would of course be the crowning glory,” he said.

(Reporting by Riham Alkousaa and Annegret Hilse; Editing by Alison Williams)