Gymnastics is a sport of strength, dexterity, and grace, a sport in which both men and women have excelled since its early Greek beginnings.
The Greek word—Gymnazein—literally translates to “exercise naked” because gymnastics emphasizes showing off one’s strengths and body fitness. Of course, gymnasts cover up now, usually with dazzling, colorful leotards. Their attire allows them to move freely to perform stunts like somersaults, splits, backflips, and more and also prevents accidents caused by loose-fitting clothing.
These days, children as young as 18 months old are learning the skills needed to do those stunts and so much more. With the help of dedicated instructors, young gymnasts are building strength and character. Many commit upwards of 25 hours a week to their gymnastics schedule, and they’re more than happy to do so.
There are many different types of gymnastics activities. For example, rings, parallel bars, and floor exercise are among boys’ events; and balance beam, floor exercise, and vaulting horse are among events for girls. Dance routines are included in many girls’ floor exercises, incorporating music, special costumes, and props along with impressive acrobatic skills.
Gymnastics instructors in Tidewater train students of all ages, preparing them for local and national competitions and teaching them to take on any challenge with confidence. Their students regularly test their limits physically and mentally. Best of all, they are saying fit, making friends, and having fun.
At only five years old, Parker Cook has already learned basic skills like backwards and frontwards rolls and cartwheels in her Level 1 class at Excalibur Gymnastics. These basic skills will allow her to master harder moves as she graduates through each level.
Parker’s favorite activity is working on the bars, where she has to pull herself up “and be very careful in case you fall down,” she explained.
Named for King Arthur’s magical sword, Excalibur Gymnastics in Virginia Beach offers classes and programs for students beginning at 18 months old through adulthood. They also host birthday parties and summer camps.
“It’s not just about physical fitness,” said Sierra Davila, recreation director for Excalibur Gymnastics and Parker’s coach. “I feel like gymnastics really creates an environment for kids to learn not only social skills but coordination, taking direction, understanding rules, and…[it] teaches a lot about responsibility as well.”
Alexis Hope, 10, was just three years old when she joined Hurricane Gymnastics in Chesapeake. Her mother, Charisse, said that Alexis used to watch the older girls on the bars and wanted to join them. “I said, ‘Listen, if you work hard and you focus, maybe someday you’ll be able to do these things,’” said Charisse. Now, as a Level 7 gymnast, Alexis is “doing these maneuvers that I never thought she could ever achieve, and right now there are no limits,” said Charisse.
Hurricane Gymnastics also offers programs for youth beginning at age three. During their meets, 60 to 90 young athletes split into four groups after a warm-up exercise and participate in vault, bars, beam, and floor events. Each group rotates as they complete events and, after three to four hours, move on to awards.
Alexis, who is also involved in Girl Scouts and her school’s Math Club, says that gymnastics is important for kids “so they can try to be very physical and…have lots of endurance.”
Gymnastics is hard work. Young gymnasts often spend more time at the gym than they do at home or at school. Teammates rely on each other during meets to prepare for multiple competitions a year—and even give each other tips on proper form and how to perfect a particular move.
Gymnasts are learning how to trust their bodies and their instructors until they are able to master their moves over and over again. This means that they have to push their fears aside and keep trying until they get it right.
Coaches stay with their students every step of the way, guiding them as they flip over bars to make sure they don’t get hurt. While injuries can happen during any physically intense activity, coaches are on hand to help students improve their form and be ready to catch them at any time during practice.
“Walking on a high balance beam is really scary, and [kids are] usually really tiny,” said Maggie Osborn, who coaches Alexis at Hurricane Gymnastics. “A lot of hands-on spotting helps, just reassuring them that you have them and you’re not going to let anything happen,” Maggie explained. “A trust has to be built between the teacher and student.”
Building confidence is a key factor in teaching young gymnasts to prepare for competitions. As students move up through the levels, they begin to teach younger students the very moves they feared when they first learned them at a younger age. While stunts are performed individually, each competition is a team effort, and teammates cheer each other on and help one another out during weekly meets.
At competitions, teams perform stunts and earn points based on fluidity and accuracy for each event. At the end, the team with the most points overall wins. Similarly, during an individual competition, students demonstrate their own skills while judges score between 1 and 10 for each action. But even during those individual moments, teammates are there to support each other on the sidelines.
“Before the meet I do my teammates hair, and we all get ready together,” said Kassidy Cumber, 17, who has been training at Gymstrada in Virginia Beach for almost a decade. “We just talk to get our nerves out and cheer for each other really loud.”
Kassidy’s coach, Amanda Tolley, says she has seen impressive growth in Kassidy in the years she’s known her. “I’ve gotten to see her grow up,” Amanda said. “She is a great leader and role model for all of the younger girls in the gym.”
For the last four years, Jessica Rothman, 17, has also been one of Amanda’s students at Gymstrada. She believes kids should be involved in gymnastics at a young age because “it helps them stay organized and… form a bond with teammates and coaches.”
As a gymnast, Jessica has made it to national competitions twice. Even though she’s had several injuries throughout her time as a gymnast, she believes that pushing herself to get back in the game has helped her achieve her goals.
“I’ve really watched [Jessica] come out of her shell and be more open,” said Amanda. “She’s a tremendous worker and leader on the team.”
Now preparing to graduate high school, Kassidy and Jessica both have earned gymnastics scholarships and will continue training through college.
Gymnastics may not be an easy sport, but it allows students to realize they are capable of much more than they could ever imagine, if they only set their minds to it. Through the challenging sport of gymnastics, children and teens learn time management and social and organizational skills and become accomplished role models.
Because of gymnastics’ increasing popularity, schools are now incorporating the sport into their everyday activities and after-school programs. Gyms are offering beginner programs for children and adults who just want to try something new. Even at the recreational level, kids are having fun while becoming masters of their own bodies.
“Kids strive for their goals and continue through all the steps to achieve them,” said Maggie Osborn. “Those are life skills, not just gymnastics.”
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