Kaylen McDonald will always remember his 18th birthday as the day his dreams came true.
The milestone was made even more special when the Y NSW gymnast and coach was told he had qualified for the 2023 Special Olympics World Games in Berlin and would be representing Australia in Men’s Artistic Level Two gymnastics.
Kaylen was selected following his stellar performance at the Special Olympics National Games in Tasmania last year, where he won seven gold medals.
He will join a cohort of 7000 athletes with intellectual disabilities from approximately 170 countries who are set to compete in 24 sports at the World Games from 17-25 June.
It will be his first international competition – a highlight of his 16-year journey with the Y.
Diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder at a young age, Kaylen began gymnastics at the Y Bankstown aged two.
“I feel good about the Y being inclusive of people with a disability like me because it gives us an opportunity to have fun, learn new communication skills, teamwork skills and make new friends,” he said.
His first coach was his grandmother who, as a child, also took gymnastics lessons at the Y Bankstown before moving on to a coaching role aged 16.
Kaylen recalled the poignant moment he and his grandmother learnt he would be competing against the very best at the Special Olympics.
“My grandmother got an email and I heard her crying in her room. She gave me her phone so I could read the email and I also started crying,” Kaylen said.
“She said, ‘congratulations, you’ve worked 16 hard years to make it this far.’”
Training six hours a week ahead of the games as part of the Y’s Special Olympics gymnastics training program, Kaylen looks forward to trying his best, making new friends and learning about different cultures while in Berlin.
He credited the program for providing opportunities for people with a disability to pursue their goals.
The Y’s Special Olympics men’s coach Matthew Wotton, who runs the program at the Y Epping, said he was proud of Kaylen’s achievements.
“He’s got the honour of representing the country – there’s not many people who can say that,” he said.
“I think it’s very rewarding to progress to that level and experience the top in their sport and the top of what they’re doing. I feel very proud to see Kaylen achieve what he’s achieved in a short period of time.”
Kaylen is now following in his grandmother’s footsteps, having become an accredited coach at the Bankstown centre where he now trains beginner gymnasts aged four to 12.
“I love that I can teach kids the stuff I was taught when I was their age, so I can help them have fun and build muscle strength and skills they can use outside of gymnastics and in gymnastics,” he said.
The Y Bankstown Gymnastics Coordinator and Kaylen’s manager, Jessica Mavridis, described him as a “determined gymnast” and “a fun and energetic coach”.
“All his kids love being in his class because he understands them and completes activities with them that are challenging.
“Kaylen is a true Y ‘lifer’ – his journey through the Y started when he was a little kid. He has trained and competed in our Special Olympics and FreeG programs, which have been a huge success in our centre. Kaylen then completed our Mentee Program and is now employed as one of our recreational coaches.”