Sharon Taylor had reservations about her daughter, Kelli, joining the Olentangy Orange High School gymnastics team.

Sharon Taylor had reservations about her daughter, Kelli, joining the Olentangy Orange High School gymnastics team.

Kelli Taylor, a junior who has Down syndrome, had worked with Orange coach Jen Hedrick through the Special Olympics of Delaware County. However, Sharon wasn't as convinced as Hedrick that Kelli should compete for the Pioneers.

After seeing how much Kelli has enjoyed the experience this winter, Sharon said she's grateful that Hedrick wanted Kelli on the team.

"I was hesitant at first because I'm protective of Kelli, but everyone has welcomed her and helped make it a great experience," Sharon said. "Kelli's had a lot of great experiences in athletics as part of the Special Olympics of Delaware County, but when coach Hedrick asked her to be a part of her high school team, that was the ultimate for her."

Kelli said her favorite aspect of competing for the Pioneers has been establishing stronger friendships with her peers.

"I'm having a lot of fun and I've made a lot of best friends, like Molly (Nathaniel), Kelly Schutte and Danielle (Chickerella)," Kelli said. "My favorite part (of competing in gymnastics) is my floor routine."

Nathaniel, a volunteer assistant coach to Hedrick with the Special Olympics of Delaware County gymnastics team, said having Kelli join Orange's squad has been a gratifying experience.

"Everyone likes having Kelli on the team and everyone tries to help her out and is great with her," Nathaniel said. "Everyone on the team loves her and I haven't heard anyone say one bad thing about her. All of the teams and coaches are so supportive and cheer for her every meet."

Kelli also is a cheerleader for Special Olympics of Delaware County basketball games in the winter. She practices with Orange's gymnastics squad twice a week and has competed in two meets.

During Orange's 126.5-121.4 loss to Upper Arlington on Dec. 7, Taylor scored a 5.0 on floor exercise and a 3.0 on vault.

"We look at the skills that Kelli can do and come up with routines that fit within the high school guidelines," Hedrick said. "Floor is definitely Kelli's best event. She's very good at moving and doing her skills to the music. And if she ever finishes too fast, she's good at choreographing her own routine to finish with the music."

Kelli competed all-around during a quad meet Jan. 17 at Thomas Worthington. She scored a 5.8 on vault, a 5.0 on balance beam, a 3.5 on floor and a 3.2 on uneven bars.

"We've had a lot of injuries and we needed some girls who don't usually compete all-around to do it at that meet," Hedrick said. "Not many people do all four events and do them well, but Kelli was excited and willing to compete all-around that day. We've taught Kelli a third floor routine that's different than the two she does for Special Olympics and for her to remember three routines when so many other girls can't remember theirs is really impressive."

At the conclusion of the Jan. 17 meet, Kelli was called up to stand with the gymnasts who finished with the top eight all-around scores. She said she was so excited that she couldn't fall asleep that night until after midnight.

"That made me so happy," she said. "I'm having a lot of fun."

In addition to high school gymnastics, Kelli has participated in Special Olympics programs nearly year-round since she was 7 years old.

She competes on a swimming team in the fall, is a cheerleader in the winter and competes for a gymnastics squad in the spring.

In a decade of competing in the Special Olympics, she has earned 16 gold, 12 silver and 24 bronze medals.

"Sports and cheerleading have been good for Kelli and have kept her busy," Sharon said. "It's not only great exercise, but it's been good for socializing because she's met a lot of friends who she has kept for years. When she competes in something she can be successful at, her self-confidence level definitely goes up. She's so proud of her gold medals and she loves showing them to her family and friends."

Hedrick said having Kelli on the team has taught Orange's gymnasts valuable lessons.

"It's good for Kelli to get more time to bond with her peers, and it's been good for the rest of the girls to get to know someone with special needs," Hedrick said. "All of our girls have become more accepting and comfortable around Kelli as they have gotten to know her, and I really hope they learn from this experience and take something away from it."