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13

‘I have Down syndrome, and I have no limitations’

Faith and support of family and friends drive Gabriel Cobb to be a visible advocate for people with Down syndrome

In his bright orange High School Triathlon Club jersey, Gabriel Cobb is easily visible.

That’s how he likes it.

Gabriel, a 22-year-old parishioner at St. Joseph Parish in Cottleville, has been racing triathlons since 2018. He got into the sport kind of by accident; some friends from the St. Gianna Homeschool Co-op invited him to come work out at the YMCA, he explains. The club’s coach saw him and convinced him — and his parents, Lori and Thomas — to give triathlons a shot.

Thirteen races later, Gabriel continues to rise to the challenge, and in the process, gives a visible witness to everyone present: I am here. I am determined. I live a full and vibrant life.

“So many people I’m sure would have doubted Gabriel, or other people with Down syndrome, being able to do a triathlon, but Gabe’s out here proving them wrong,” said Luke Gilsinger, a coach and mentor with the club. “It’s incredible to watch.”

Gabriel Cobb started a triathlon at Creve Coeur Lake in May. Two months prior, Gabriel shared his story at the United Nations before World Down Syndrome Day, where he said, “I have Down syndrome, and I have no limitations.”
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

‘You against you’

It starts with the swim.

The dense fog lifted off the surface of Creve Coeur Lake around 6:30 a.m. on May 21, giving way to a bright almost-summer morning about 15 minutes before the first triathletes would dive into the water.

Gabriel stood with his High School Triathlon Club teammates, the end of the race already on his mind as he practiced his finish-line pose — hands crossed up in front of his chest to show off his Tri Club temporary tattoos on each hand. “I’m going to go like this,” he said, demonstrating.

Gabriel and the rest of the athletes participating in the St. Louis Triathlon dove into the lake in waves, swimming 750 meters through the open water. It’s hard to tell who is who under goggles and swim caps in the lake, but Gabriel’s mother, Lori, eagerly stood on the dock to spot her son as he neared the shore. She cheered as he emerged and ran up the ramp to his father, Thomas, who was on wetsuit duty for the team, helping the athletes quickly shed the suits to get cycling-ready.

“Go, Gabriel! Have fun!” Thomas called after him as he jogged off toward the bike racks. “I will!” Gabriel shouted back.

Next, the bike ride.

Gabriel used the number 321 as his race number May 7 because people with Down syndrome have a third copy of chromosome 21.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand
Gabriel took off down the pavement alongside Maggie Krewet, a family friend and triathlon buddy. Gabriel doesn’t receive any modifications or physical support during triathlons, but he is accompanied by a coach or friend who helps keep him motivated and on the right track.

The club’s motto was visible on the back of their jerseys as they pedaled away: “You against you.” Also visible was Gabriel’s race number, written in black marker on his arm: 321, chosen because people with Down syndrome have a third copy of the 21st chromosome.

Twenty kilometers later, they were back, racking their bikes before the last leg of the race.

Finally, the run.

As Gabriel and Maggie hit the final stretch of the 5 kilometers, a sea of bright orange jogged up around them. It’s a Tri Club tradition for athletes to “run in” the final club member to finish the race.

Gabriel crossed the finish line, turned to Maggie, and gave her a double high-five. “You did it, Maggie!” he said with a grin.

Gabriel ran toward the finish line of his second triathlon of the year May 21 at Creve Coeur Lake in Maryland Heights.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

On a mission

Triathlons are one of the ways the Cobb family has found to witness to the dignity of people with Down syndrome. Their ultimate goal is to reduce the number of babies who are aborted after receiving a Down syndrome diagnosis.

“We’re finding that the world needs advocates to get out there and advocate for themselves, to say, I have a quote ‘disability,’ but I have value, and I have something to give to the world,” Thomas said. “When it comes down to it, that’s really why we’re doing this.”

Gabriel greeted his father, Thomas Cobb, at the finish line at St. Peters Rec-Plex in May. High School Triathlon Club members run through the finish line together with the last member of the club to finish a race.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand
When Tri Club founder “Coach Dan” Engelhard first invited Gabriel to train for a triathlon, Lori and Thomas were hesistant — they didn’t know anything about the sport. But they’ve always worked to hold the bar high for Gabriel, and Engelhard’s insistence that Gabriel needed a goal resonated.

There was never any hesitation on Coach Dan’s end. Over the past six years, Gabriel’s impact to the team has been “off the charts,” Dan said.

“His parents are always worried that he’s going to hold us up, but in my opinion, these kids are going to know about this for the rest of their lives,” he said. “We have a kid with cerebal palsy, we have kids with Asperger’s. And their teammates train with them, and I think later in life, they’re going to recognize, and help support, and be better advocates for people who have any kind of difference or disability.”

Perry Citrowske, a family friend and fellow Tri Club parent, still remembers Gabriel’s first triathlon and the way the entire team supported him. “There’s a genuine care for him,” he said. “And I think it reflects on the whole group—the kids, the parents, (Coach) Dan as the leader.”

Perry, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Josephville, has known the Cobb family for a long time through Catholic homeschool circles in St. Charles County. “They’re very faith-filled people,” he said.

That faith spills over into everything they do — including the Tri Club, he said. During some of Gabriel’s first weeks, “When we were riding and doing some of the practices, (Lori) took holy water and blessed the bikes. Faith is just part of everything she does,” Perry said. “And it wasn’t just for Gabriel, it was for the whole group. She cares about everybody on the team, for their well-being and making sure everybody’s safe and everybody has fun.”

Gabriel hugged his mother, Lori Cobb, after playing piano at their home.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

No limitations

On March 17, Gabriel stood in front of a room of diplomats and supporters to share his story at the United Nations headquarters in New York.

“My biggest accomplishment is that I have completed 10 half-Olympic triathlons with no modifications,” he said, sporting the trademark bright orange Tri Club pullover.

Gabriel’s speech was part of an event sponsored by the Center for Family and Human Rights ahead of World Down Syndrome Day on March 21. He was first invited to speak at the United Nations in 2020; although he had no prior public speaking experience, he and his family prayed about it and then said yes. Two weeks before, a priest had prayed with Lori and told her, “Jesus wants you to come out of the closet, have no fear and experience His blessings,” she recalled.

The event was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which worked out well for Gabriel: Three years later, Gabriel had a couple of public speaking engagements under his belt already, including a speech to an international nurses’ conference in San Antonio last year.

In his speech, Gabriel used his experience as a triathlete to describe the challenges and joys of his everyday life. Training for three different physical activities is a challenge for nearly everyone, and Down syndrome-related low muscle tone and flat feet makes it that much more challenging, he said.

Gabriel Cobb smiled while getting food at a Dairy Queen in St. Peters with teammates from the High School Triathlon Club, including Caroline Rousseau, to left of Gabriel, Faith Curry, left in foreground, and Trinity Young following a race May 21.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand
“I am so thankful for my coaches, family and friends who have encouraged me to push boundaries,” he said. “I pray that I have given them joy and inspiration, because with their help, I have Down syndrome, and I have no limitations.”

God keeps “pushing us out of our comfort zone,” Lori said. Traveling to New York, much less speaking at the United Nations, was not something she would have sought out if God hadn’t nudged them.

“The coolest part about the speaking opportunities and the triathlons is: We really don’t know his limit. People with Down syndrome are always put in this little box, that for the most part, they’re going to be heavy, they’re going to be out of shape, they’re not going to know a lot, and they’re probably not going to know how to talk well,” Lori said. “We’re going to keep knocking down those walls, in the name of God, to try and broaden people’s perspectives, with His grace and protection and the help of so many other people.”

It was a whirlwind trip to New York, Lori said, but one of the most memorable parts came after the speech.

“We went back to the hotel, and the manager caught us and proceeded to tell us that he and his wife were pregnant with twins. And five days earlier, they’d gotten the diagnosis that one of their babies would have Down syndrome,” she said. “We got to pray with him and just offer our names and numbers. So maybe that’s why God has us go to New York.”

Father Joshua Deters talked with Gabriel and his parents, Lori and Thomas; his sister, Amalie Collard; his nephew, Ignacio Davila; and his brother-in-law, Jay Davila, at a reception after Father Deters’ ordination to the priesthood May 27.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

Carrying the torch

Not too long after Gabriel was born, two houses next to the Cobbs’ went up for sale in their quiet cul-de-sac in St. Charles. “Every night, we prayed for peaceful neighbors,” Lori said. “And God dropped children with Down syndrome out of the sky.”

Their new neighbors included two other children with Down syndrome: a girl about 10 years older and a boy about a year younger.

“We kind of had our own support group, just right here,” Thomas said.

Sometimes, witnessing to life means public events, like United Nations speeches or triathlons. Sometimes, it’s in these personal conversations with other families. Friends and doctors call on Lori and Thomas as a faith-filled resource for new parents of children with Down syndrome. Someday, they’d love to write a book to give to people who get the diagnosis for their child in utero or at birth.

Gabriel trained with Caleb Young, left, and Isaac Schaefer in April at O’Fallon Family YMCA.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand
“Just as something very optimistic, setting that bar high, and giving them the hope that you need,” Thomas said. “Because when we had Gabriel, I had seen one other person in my entire life with Down syndrome.”

Gabriel and his friend Grace Strobel, a model and fellow Catholic young adult with Down syndrome, also use social media to showcase what their lives look like — in the fun and approachable way of Gen-Z-ers. Gabriel’s Instagram shows his triathlon training, of course, along with the other hobbies and responsibilies that fill his days: cooking, helping with house projects, playing the piano, doing chores like laundry and dishes, reading and hanging out with friends and family, including his nephews and niece.

Faith is the anchor of his daily life: daily Mass in the morning, praying the Angelus at noon and Divine Mercy prayers at 3 p.m. He spent the day before the St. Louis Triathlon participating in the archdiocesan Marian Conference. When he was younger, he served at the altar during Mass; recently, he carried a banner in the Holy Thursday procession.

Although God has led them down some unexpected paths, Gabriel and his family will continue to try to follow His will — and put in the slow and steady work of training for wherever He leads them.

“This isn’t about us; it isn’t about Gabriel. This is about saving babies, witnessing for life, and potential, and more. We’re just the ones who happen to be carrying the torch momentarily,” Lori said. “We constantly remind ourselves of all these beautiful people who are so kind to us — it’s because of God.”


Watch Gabriel’s speech at the United Nations

https://media.un.org/en/asset/k1c/k1cqfxsaw6

(Gabriel begins around the 36-minute mark)

Follow Gabriel on Instagram: @gabriel.cobb_tri21

Gabriel and his teammates prayed before a triathlon at Creve Coeur Lake in Maryland Heights in May.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

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