The inclusive catwalk featured the new class of SI Swimsuit Search Finalists, including a 55-year-old model, a fitness instructor with alopecia and a former dancer with an undiagnosed illness that has weakened her ability to walk

By Kaitlyn Frey
July 15, 2019 05:06 PM

Sports Illustrated Swimsuit is continuing to break boundaries, most recently using its platform to showcase a lineup of diverse women on the catwalk during Miami Swim Week.

Muslim model and activist Halima Aden — who made history as the first model to wear a hijab and burkini in the SI Swimsuit 2019 — opened the powerful Sports Illustrated 2019 Runway Show at the W South Beach Hotel wearing a custom-designed Cynthia Rowley burkini that read “DON’T CHANGE YOURSELF, CHANGE THE GAME” down the sleeves.

SI Swim editor MJ Day tells PEOPLE that featuring Aden as the opening model in the show was “the perfect way to kick off diverse looks showcasing models of different shapes, sizes and backgrounds.”

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty

“These shows keep getting bigger and better and more inspirational. We thought we ‘shattered perceptions’ with our 2019 issue but after meeting such incredible women during our annual Model Search in Miami, I think the team surpassed anything we could have ever imagined!” Day tells PEOPLE of the show, which featured 16 Model Search Finalists, along with 2019 Model Search winner Brooks Nader and SI Swimsuit modeling vets.

Credit: Alexander Tamargo/Getty

Designer Cynthia Rowley collaborated with Aden to select the inspirational phrase featured down her burkini sleeves, which the designer said “exemplifies continued support of female empowerment.”

Aden was joined by many other diverse women from all ages and backgrounds on the catwalk. Kathy Jacobs, a 55-year-old model and actress who goes by AgeIsBeauty on Instagram, beamed as she modeled a neon sequin bikini and a snakeskin bikini on the catwalk.

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty (2)

“You’re never to old to chase your dreams!!!!!!” Jacobs wrote on Instagram.

During another moving moment, Day walked former professional dancer Djaniel Carter down the runway in a wheelchair before she stood up and posed for the crowd. After years of dancing, Carter dislocated both of her legs and has since been battling an underlining medical condition that has yet to be diagnosed, resulting in a weakened ability to walk.

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty
Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty

Dancer and fitness instructor Christie Valdiserri also exuded confidence during her runway strut.

Three years ago Valdiserri was diagnosed with alopecia, an autoimmune skin disease causing hair loss. Once she reached the end of the catwalk, Valdiserri pulled off her blonde wig and proudly embraced her bald look.

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty (2)

“After hiding under my wig for over a year I saw the SI Swim catalog and all these other women embracing who they are and it made me realize that I can do this too,” she said in her SI Swim Search audition tape. “I’m bald and I’m beautiful!”

The show wouldn’t be complete without the reigning SI Swim covergirl Camille Kostek, who modeled three stunning swimsuit looks on the runway. Models wore socially conscious swimwear looks by designers “who encourage and promote sustainability, inclusivity and philanthropy.”

Credit: Frazer Harrison/Getty (3)

“The show told our story, represented what we all believe — the conversation shouldn’t stop at body diversity or how a women should look — the conversation should open doors for individuals who have stories to tell and whose actions mean as much as their appearance,” Day tells PEOPLE.

She adds, “Swimsuit as a brand has been evolving with the cultural climate and we just hope to keep breaking down as many barriers as we can.”