Tiffany Carey is one of seven children. Growing up, she often played the role of cheerleader.  She was always in the stands with her mom, Mary, at her siblings’ competitions, concerts and activities. She was happy to be supportive, but she didn’t have any outlets of her own. It wasn’t until she was 17 years old that Tiffany joined Special Olympics Minnesota and changed her life.

“I wish I would have known about the programs Special Olympics offers sooner. Tiffany experienced a lot of exclusion growing up, and we had to fight for everything,” says Mary. “I felt like a failure. I just didn’t know about social and sports options for people with intellectual disabilities.”

Now Tiffany is 49 years old, and roles in the Carey family have shifted. Tiffany is the star athlete and her sisters and brother come to all her Special Olympics competitions to cheer her on. Over the years, Tiffany has competed in bowling, basketball, poly hockey and softball. Her favorite Special Olympics sport of all is gymnastics, and it’s taking her to the world stage.

Athlete Tiffany and her coach Michaela. both wearing team uniforms, celebrate at a gymnastics competition
Tiffany and her coach Michaela celebrate at a gymnastics competition

When she first found out that she would be competing in gymnastics at the 2023 Special Olympics World Games, Tiffany was brought to tears.  When she opened the email, she screamed so loud she startled her dad across the house.

“I started crying, then my mom started crying…I called my sister and she started crying,” says Tiffany with a smile. “It was an emotional moment for my whole family.”

Competing at World Games is the dream of a lifetime for Tiffany, one that she has been working for years to achieve. She will represent Special Olympics USA in artistic gymnastics alongside five other athletes from Illinois, North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan and Kentucky.

6 Special Olympics athletes pose on stairs, their right elbows leaning on the banister, smiling at the camera
Special Olympics USA gymnastics delegation for the 2023 World Games in Berlin, Germany

Each morning, Tiffany wakes up and walks downstairs to the kitchen to change the number on her World Games countdown hanging on the fridge. Every day is one day closer to her living her dream. She wants to perform to the best of her ability in Berlin, and she’s extremely dedicated to making that happen.

“World Games is a big commitment for Tiffany,” says Mary. “She has a rigorous training schedule, and I’m so proud to watch her work toward her goals. She’s so driven!”

Dedicated is an understatement. Tiffany trains with her Special Olympics Minnesota gymnastics team three days a week to work on her routine, meets with the Special Olympics USA delegation via Zoom every Monday, takes water aerobics classes twice a week to stay in shape, and sprinkles in online ballet classes to help with her balance and coordination. In addition, she is doing her best to walk over 5,000 steps and do at-home exercises assigned by her USA coaches every single day.

Tiffany, a woman wearing a tank top with American flags on it and black pants, balances on a gymnastics beam that's propped up a couple feet from the floor while her coach, Michaela, kneels on the beam and holds her hands out towards Tiffany
Tiffany practices her beam technique with coach Michaela

Tiffany’s Special Olympics Minnesota gymnastics coach, Michaela, has been an incredible mentor over the years, and she has played a significant role in the preparation for World Games.

“Michaela gives really good advice. She’s very patient with me. She encourages me and tells me not to give up,” says Tiffany. “I like to tell other people the same thing. Don’t give up! Special Olympics is all about doing your best.”

Tiffany and Michaela have been practicing every part of the routine, but they’re working especially hard on nailing her mount and beam techniques leading up to the big competition.

As she fine-tunes her gymnastics skills, Tiffany is also applying some of the soft skills that she’s gained through her involvement with Special Olympics. She’s been motivated and attentive to her mental health throughout the entire process. Tiffany wants to be calm, relaxed and ready to go so she can take in everything that Berlin has to offer.

“Special Olympics has taught Tiffany tremendous social skills,” says Mary. “It’s changed her life for the better, and I know some of the friendships she has made will last for the rest of her life.”

Tiffany and her mother Mary, both wearing T-shirts featuring Disney imagery and their names, pose and smile in front of a blue wall covered with white stars
Tiffany and her mother Mary visit Disney World
Tiffany, wearing a big bow in her hair printed with the American flag, smiles at the camera and holds up a paper sign that says Gymnastics Special Olympics USA
Tiffany attends a meeting for Special Olympics USA team athletes in advance of the 2023 World Games in Berlin, Germany

Mary Carey wants everyone to know about the life-changing opportunities that Special Olympics provides. If she can spread the word to just one other parent or  athlete to help avoid the exclusion Tiffany faced, she’ll feel like she’s done her job.

“Having an ‘invisible’ disability can be so difficult to navigate. People just don’t get it sometimes,” says Mary. “But Special Olympics is a community that makes people feel like they have a place in society. The kindness that this organization has shown our family is just amazing.”

“In the next 50 years, I want to see even more opportunities for Special Olympics athletes to achieve! People with disabilities deserve to shine and to be encouraged,” Mary says as she gives Tiffany a high five. “I’m proud to celebrate my daughter for her abilities and can’t wait to be her cheerleader at World Games.”

Traveling to Germany for World Games will be the Careys’ first time out of the country, and Special Olympics Minnesota is so excited for them to experience inclusion on a global stage. Tiffany’s parents will be there cheering her on every step of the way. Good luck Tiffany—we can’t wait to see you shine!