Paddling for gold: Seattle’s Devon Adelman goes from White House to Special Olympics ambassador

From speaking to the United Nations and visiting the White House to talk about Down syndrome, to cheerleading and soccer, Devon Adelman has always risen to the occasion. Her next big goal: A stand-up paddle board gold medal at the Special Olympics USA When Seattle’s Devon Adelman gets on her paddle board during the Special Olympics USA Games on Monday, you can bet she will be nervous.

But the 21-year-old has long been rising to the occasion, most notably when, at 18, she gave the keynote speech at the World Down Syndrome Day event at the United Nations in New York, then went to the White House representing the Global Down Syndrome Foundation during an address by President Barack Obama.

That is pretty heady stuff for Adelman, who was a cheerleader at Nathan Hale High School, graduated from Highline College’s Achieve program, works as a lab aide at Universal Cells and dreams of being a marine biologist.

She said a lot of her confidence comes from competing in Special Olympics, which she began as a sophomore in high school. That boost lifted her in all aspects of her life, and because of that, when all eyes were on her at the United Nations, she was ready.

“That was my first experience with public speaking and I was completely terrified, but then when I got up there, I calmed down,” said Adelman, who previously competed in soccer and skiing. “I just went for it with all my heart, and it was completely fine. I got a standing ovation and it was amazing.”

INTERACTIVE VIDEO | Go out on the water with Devon Adelman

Adelman spoke about her life, about being included and how she beat the odds to go to college.

“And now I have graduated from college and I’ve got my first job,” she said.

Life was not going quite so well for Adelman when she was a sophomore in high school, when she said she was being bullied.

“I found out about Special Olympics, and it really just changed my whole life,” Adelman said.

It was more than just the competing, it was all the new friends she made.

And five years later, she is an official ambassador of these Games, a role model for many.

Stand-up paddle board will make its Special Olympics USA Games debut in Seattle, with 23 competitors from six states.

Adelman has been training hard, but stand-up paddle board is still relatively new to her. Adelman’s parents were getting into it, and as mom Sue said, they kind of “dragged Devon into it, because we were hoping it would be a family thing.”

Devon quickly learned this new sport wasn’t going to be easy.

“It was definitely a learning experience,” she said. “When I first tried it, I fell in the water. But as I progressed, I became a lot better because you have to have lots of balance, and that core strength to stay on the board.”

She discovered that the skills she used in skiing and soccer translated well to her new sport, and she decided to try to qualify for the USA Games in it.

“In soccer, you have to run a lot, and I wanted to try a new sport,” she said. “But it takes a lot of practice.”

Adelman proved a fast learner, winning a gold medal in the 790-yard event at the Washington Games on Green Lake last summer, which earned her a berth in the USA Games.

The hard work has continued. Adelman gets out on the water when she can, and when the weather isn’t great, she will do dry-land training by standing and paddling on an exercise ball that’s been cut in half: “I have to train to use my whole core and not just my arms or my back.”

Getting ready for a big event is nothing new for Adelman. When she was a senior in high school, she planned to attend World Down Syndrome Day and the family submitted Devon’s information to the conference.

They were taken by surprise when they got a call asking the family to do the keynote address to the United Nations.

There were a couple of months to prepare, and with the confidence she had gotten from Special Olympics and cheerleading, Devon was ready for her big moment.

“Special Olympics and cheerleading built up my confidence, and it just all came out,” she said.

Adelman started doing some speaking for Special Olympics Washington, and soon she was asked to be an ambassador for the USA Games, which has included some time on television.

“To be on TV has been amazing, but I am trying not to brag about it,” she said. “I am trying to be humble.”

Adelman has many goals, and the first is to get a gold medal at these Games.

“I am super pumped,” she said. “I really want a gold medal, but if not it’s just a blessing to be at the Games, and just doing this.”

Adelman got her job at Universal Cell after working as an intern at Seattle Children’s hospital. She loves her work as a lab aide, but her longtime goal is still to be a marine biologist, and she has spent time as a volunteer at the Seattle Aquarium.

“I have had a passion for science and I like being on the beach and just looking at the big horizon,” said Adelman, who lived off the Florida Panhandle from ages 2 to 6 and spent a lot of time on the beach. “Something about the ocean fascinates me.”

If Adelman accomplishes her dream of becoming a marine biologist, she wants to work out in the field, and she and her parents recently got scuba-diving certifications while in Hawaii.

At this point, Adelman thinks there’s little she can’t do.

She has stepped up when in the spotlight, and is a thoughtful and articulate public speaker. That makes her a great ambassador for the Games.

“I am definitely enjoying it,” she said. “But I want to share the spotlight with my friends. I am speaking for others. Don’t judge me on my disability, judge me on my ability. I am a person first. Everyone has pros and cons. Everyone has down times and positive times. We are people first.”

Article by Scott Hanson

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