Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2009 | People

Figure Skating Family: Elke Nelson

By Shelbi Thomas

A scene fit for a snow globe recently came to life for one mother-daughter ice skating team. As Elke Nelson and her daughter, Sonia Bellile, began practicing this past December at an outdoor rink, snow started swirling around them. Bellile says, “It was like a movie.”

Life hasn’t always been picture-perfect for Nelson and Bellile, who this past February became the first mother-daughter skating pair in Special Olympics history. Born with Down syndrome, Bellile has overcome enormous social, mental, and physical challenges, including enduring open-heart surgery as a teenager. The Special Olympics offers her the chance to meet other athletes with mental and physical disabilities and discover her talents.

Bellile and Nelson have now been involved with Special Olympics for more than 25 years, but they only started unified ice skating—which pairs a person with a disability with a non-disabled partner—nine years ago. Ice skating challenges Bellile to be more graceful and keeps Nelson young. “We have to depend on each other,” says Nelson, 62BA, 71MS, 80PhD. “When I mess up, Sonia says, ‘That’s all right. Just don’t do it [in competitions]!’”

About 3,000 athletes from more than 100 countries advanced to the 2009 World Winter Games in Boise, Idaho. While this year was Bellile’s first time skating in that event, she has competed many times before at the state and national levels in sports including gymnastics, golfing, swimming, and downhill skiing. All together, Bellile has collected 142 medals—most of them gold. Mother and daughter brought home three more medals this year—a gold for Bellile’s solo performance and a bronze each for their pairs routine.

Like all their previous trips to Special Olympics events, though, the real rewards come with the friends and memories they make.