Brookline Teen Honored For Special Olympics Gymnastics Program
Brookline Teen Honored For Special Olympics Gymnastics Program

Brookline Teen Honored For Special Olympics Gymnastics Program

BROOKLINE, MA — Zoe Li-Khan has spent the last decade working on her gymnastic skills as a dedicated competitor at Exxcel Gymnastics in Newton, and for years looked forward to the time when she could share the mat with her younger sister, Zara.

But as Zara grew older it became difficult to find suitable programs for her given that she has special needs.

So Zoe, a junior at Buckingham Browne & Nichols, decided she would take it upon herself in between her studies, as well as her own gymnastics and track and field training, to begin an adaptive Superstars program at Exxcel that now includes 13 athletes and 20 volunteer coaches in its third year.

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“Being able to share the sport of gymnastics with her has been really special,” Zoe Li-Khan told Patch. “Ever since I started gymnastics, Zara had always loved coming to my meets to cheer me on, hoping one day she would be able to compete. Seeing her so excited to do gymnastics and her reactions to getting new skills and awards is really special to me.

“It has been rewarding to watch her have fun in the gym and for her to get to know my fellow gymnastics teammates and vice versa. It has also been great to see her be excited about competing and work hard to learn her routines.”

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Li-Khan was recently honored for both her efforts with the Special Olympics gymnastics program and her advocacy work for Project Bridges, a collaboration between her own school and Cotting School, a local school for kids with special needs to provide vocational work opportunities through on-site job training, with a Diversity Scholarship by the National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS), a national scholarship organization committed to advancing high-achieving students and educators.

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Along with her extensive gymnastics and school work, Li-Khan also recently returned from the 2024 AAU Nationals in track and field where she earned two All-American honors.

“It can be difficult to manage my schoolwork while also working on these projects,” she said. “However, I have learned a lot of important time management skills during high school. I try to stay organized and use my time wisely, for example by doing work during my free blocks in school. Because some of my activities are self-managed, I am able to arrange my schedule in a way that works best for me, making it easier to manage my time.”

She said she relied on her own background knowledge of gymnastics as a longtime competitor and extensive research to start the adaptive program. Her sister, who deals with Prader Willi Syndrome, which diminishes muscle tone and growth, was involved with other Special Olympics programs, which also helped with background in how to develop the gymnastics program.

Li-Khan completed the training to become a certified Level 1 Special Olympics coach to be able to start the program in 2021.

“We follow the official Special Olympics gymnastics levels, which have specific requirements needed for each level’s routines on the different apparatuses,” she said. “These skill requirements are our guidelines for what skills to work on in preparing for the state competition. Most of the volunteer coaches are also competitive gymnasts, so we are knowledgeable about gymnastics and how to teach skills.

“As assistant head coach, I am the liaison for the 20(-plus) volunteer coaches, which includes sending out weekly communications to the volunteers, helping set up the training schedule, choosing specific drills to work on, and teaching competition routines.”

She also built and manages the social media accounts, helped create a team logo, and designed the uniforms.

While the whole enterprise is quite an accomplishment, she said what makes it all worth it is seeing Zara thrive in practices and competitions.

“I was so proud of her for nailing her routines at the meet, and it was so amazing to see how proud she was to win medals and get to stand on the podium — something she has seen me do but never thought she would have the chance to do,” she said. “In the past, she might have balked at competing in front of so many people, but I feel like she has gained so much confidence by having the experience of competing at the Summer Games.

“Being on this team has also been really special for Zara, who has gained important social skills from being on the team as well as physical and athletic skills. She also has become a pseudo junior head coach and has become heavily involved in all things Superstars team. Her ears perk whenever we discuss things about the team at home, and she will immediately start providing input and commentary. She took it upon herself to start taking attendance every week, writing all the athletes’ names down on a piece of paper and checking them off when they arrived.

“When we had disposable sticker name tags last year, she would love writing out over 20 nametags every week before practice. She takes great interest and joy in keeping tabs on how everyone on the team is doing.”

The Superstars Special Olympics gymnastics team is now working towards the next Special Olympics of Massachusetts state games in June.

“I find that planning ahead and staying on top of deadlines makes it a lot easier to not get overwhelmed,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of free time on weekdays between school, homework, and sports, but I get time to relax and spend time with family and friends on weekends and school

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