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When Gabriel Cobb speaks to large groups, he leads with the same opening line: “My name is Gabriel, and I am God’s messenger!” he says.
Gabriel Cobb and his mother, Lori Cobb, played the piano at home March 7.Photo Credits: Jacob WiegandOn March 17, he will deliver that line during a presentation at the United Nations headquarters in New York. Gabriel, 22, has Down syndrome, and he will give his first-hand account of his experiences alongside a handful of other speakers at an event sponsored by the Center for Family and Human Rights ahead of World Down Syndrome Day on March 21.
Gabriel was first invited to speak at the United Nations in 2020; although he had no prior public speaking experience, he and his parents, Thomas and Lori, prayed about it and then said yes. The family, who are parishioners at St. Joseph in Cottleville, saw it as an opportunity to witness to the inherent dignity of all people and show a wider audience how Gabriel leads a full and vibrant life.
Three days after they agreed to the gig, the country shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, three years later, Gabriel has a couple of public speaking engagements under his belt, including a speech to an international nurses’ conference in San Antonio last year. “He’s confident, and he’s comfortable,” Lori said. “We just keep trying to do what God wants us to do.”
Gabriel uses his experiences as a triathlete to illustrate the challenges and joys of his everyday life. Five years ago, friends from the homeschool co-op at St. Gianna Parish in Wentzville invited him to check out the High School Tri Club, a nonprofit group that helps young people train for triathlons and practices at the O’Fallon YMCA. Gabriel went to a club workout, thinking it would just be a fun way to exercise with other people.
But after watching him swim, a coach found Lori to tell her: “Gabriel needs to try to do a triathlon.”
“He said, ‘He has to have a goal,’” Lori said. That idea resonated with the Cobbs, so Gabriel signed up. He completed his first sprint triathlon — a 750-meter swim (often held in open water), a 20K bike ride and a 5K run — on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia that year.
Gabriel remembers feeling tired as he approached the finish line of that first triathlon. His Tri Club teammates who had already finished came to run alongside him in the final few strides.
“When they were running me in, it was just this mass mob,” Gabriel said. “They were all cheering for me. They said, ‘Go Gabriel! Go Gabriel!’”
Training for three different physical activities is a challenge for nearly everyone, and Gabriel speaks about the extra challenges that Down syndrome presents, such as low muscle tone and flat feet. Low muscle tone affects every muscle in his body; for example, standing up from a regular chair takes as much effort as someone else standing up from a beanbag chair, he explained.
“The low tone never goes away — he just learns to work with it,” Lori said.
Gabriel kicked off his sixth season with the Tri Club on March 5 and plans to enter three triathlons in the coming months.
“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.”
When he’s not running, biking or swimming, Gabriel stays busy by cooking, mowing the grass, playing the piano, doing chores like laundry and dishes around the house and hanging out with friends and family, including his nephews. Prior to COVID, he volunteered at Mount Carmel Senior Living as a transporter. He plays basketball for a Special Olympics team. He and his friend Grace Strobel, a model and fellow Catholic young adult with Down syndrome, like to make videos together for Instagram (@gabriel.cobb_tri21) and TikTok.
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.
Gabriel, Thomas and Lori hope that their witness will ultimately help reduce the number of abortions of babies with Down syndrome. They’re conscious of the fact that countries like Iceland and Denmark have boasted about nearly “eradicating” Down syndrome through selective abortions.
“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 will speak at the United Nations on Friday, March 17, alongside a handful of other speakers at an event sponsored by the Center for Family and Human Rights ahead of World Down Syndrome Day. The presentations are scheduled for 12:15-1:30 p.m. Central Time. Watch the livestream at media.un.org/en/webtv.
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