Their petite, yet strong bodies flip, tumble and bounce across floors and apparatuses. Steeping with curiosity, young East Texas gymnasts are swelled with achievement while learning a new acrobatic move.
It's a common scenario for gyms, such as Elite Gymnastics of Tyler. Owner Dr. Stacey Rudd estimates there has been a 25 percent increase in the number of calls from parents during this year's games but Americans' love of the ancient-age sport is relatively new.
“In the '60s, Americans would watch the Olympics and they couldn't identify with it because the Olympic and world champion back then were either Soviet, East German or Japanese,” Rudd said. “Everybody in the '60s and '70s who watched gymnastics in the United States, they didn't think it was possible for them.”
With performances by Russia's Olga Korbut in 1972 and Romania's Nadia Comaneci's perfect 10s in 1976, people started to pay attention.
“Olga kind of taught the world that girls could be athletic,” Rudd said. “She was the first gymnast that was athletic.”
And by 1984, Mary Lou Retton's Olympic gold win in Los Angeles resonated with Americans.
“That's when Americans starting saying, 'oh, OK, we can do this,' Rudd said. “Moms started identifying with American kids being successful at gymnastics and then, whoosh, it took off.”
A special kind of sport
Since YMCA controlled gymnastics, few children were involved because the organization had limited space and budgets. It was also inexpensive for participants then. Today, parents may pay at least $60 per month for a base tuition. Finances doesn't always have to a be a barrier, though.
“If Mom or Dad can verify that they have a financial need, I'm not going to turn somebody away that's talented,” Rudd said. “I've scholarshipped many kids.”
Gymnasts are typically introduced to the sport as early as 4 years old but there are exceptions to the rule. One of Rudd's best gymnasts he's taught over the years was a girl who began the sport at 9.
“In general, the odds are against you if you start at 9,” he said. “It's really good to get a girl in at 4 or 5, same with boys. If you are trying to just expose kids to the different changes in the environment, there's really not too young.”
However, he said, parents and coaches shouldn't force structure on gymnasts until around 8 or 9.
Probably one of the most difficult sports, with its skill levels and demand for focus, gymnastics has a curriculum covered in the Code of Points, the sport's bible. It includes tricks, which are being invented all of the time.
Most other sports have a handful of skills, while gymnastics has at least a thousand, Rudd said.
“As soon as you learn something, there's always something brand new past that and that captivated me,” he said. “The thing for me is just the infinite variety.”
Athletes graduate to levels, which go up to 10. There aren't many girls in the state at level 10, Rudd noted.
“It's more complicated,” Rudd said. “There's a much higher level of complexity. They've done studies that show that the pommel horse is the single most complicated movement in sports.”
To be the best, takes the same about of work no matter what the sport is, Rudd said, but challenges are always different.
“You can work your heart out but if you're in a sport that your body isn't the most suited for, you're going to run up against more limitations than somebody else whose cut out for that sport.”
Rudd is careful not to throw the word Olympics around freely, but it doesn't mean some of the girls don't have that aspiration.
“I had five people come in today saying that,” he said Tuesday. “They're all thinking about Gabby Douglas. They all say Olympics. I don't like to use that word. I always tell parents that we're going to work hard. We'll go as high as your daughter can go and a full college scholarship is a pretty good consolation prize. So, if that's as far as they get, that ain't bad.”
He added, “Three-hundred thousand kids doing gymnastics in the United States and you saw five women, five men on the TV the other day.”
Boys wanna have fun too
But in fact, although gymnastics has been around for centuries, women were barred from the sport and women's gymnastics was open for the first time 1928.
“Gymnastics originated as a man's activity,” Rudd said. “It's completely for the development of the entire person physically, and I don't think any sport does a better job of it. All you have to do is look at those male gymnasts in the Olympics and see that is a very masculine activity.”
Rudd was inspired by Japanese gymnast, Shun Fujimoto, who helped his team win a gold medal in Montreal in 1976, despite having a broken leg.
He also marveled at Soviet gymnasts and later ventured to the world championship in Russia in 1981 as a spectator where he also studied Soviet sports history.
For Michelle Bryce, of Chandler, it was no doubt that the sport would help her son, William. He has been involved in the sport for five years. William, 12, with his focus and precision moves, is one of the taller boys at the gym. He said gymnastics has become a “habit” and he enjoys working on the rings apparatus most.
“I first started him in gymnastics because he's a very active boy and it seemed like a good place for him to release some of the energy,” Ms. Bryce said. “Also, it's such a good foundational sport for any other physical activity that he'll do. You'll learn the balance, the coordination and there's lot of strength training. So I thought it'd be a good foundation for anything else he wanted to do and it ended up being the sport he wanted to do, so we just stuck with it.”
William doesn't have Olympic or even national team ambitions, but he does see it in his future. His mother said he talks about participating in college or becoming a coach.
Rudd said many sports gain popularity, but eventually, interest declines. With gymnastics, he said, it's a constant fervor.
“You see a lot of sports come and go. … But gymnastics have been around for 2,700 years,” Rudd said. “It was in the original Olympics. Now that it's caught on in the United States, it just goes up. It just increases in popularity. It's a classic. It's not something that comes and goes. It's not going to lose importance.”
Jennifer Gutshall is an instructor at Elite. As a young girl, she competed in gymnastics. She had taught gymnastics for five years but took an 11-year break before joining the team at Elite last year.
Her daughter, Kyndall, 7, is also a gymnast. With her mother's expertise and background, it was no surprise that her daughter would fall for the sport as well.
“If you love it, be dedicated,” Ms. Gutshall said.
With the success of Gabby Douglas — who made history as the first U.S. woman to win both all-around and team gold medals and the first African-American woman to win all-around gold — a new demographic may be attracted to the sport.
“Just like moms did in 1984, now African-American moms will be identifying with Gabby Douglas,” Rudd said. “I expect more black girls will be participating in gymnastics, and I'm glad for that.”
Boosting muscles and self esteem
Their mother, attorney Julie Moran, had no interest in the sport, but soon realized Cole may have a future in it beyond summer camp. He was added to a team at the gym.
Cole is determined to win a gold medal for his country. Elle enjoys doing pull-overs on bars and is trying to perfect her cartwheel.
“Now with the Olympics, their interest in it has quadrupled because they get to see grownups do it,” Ms. Moran said. “I've never seen Cole show such an interest in anything. That makes me very happy to have him excited about something.”
The twins have gone through the foster system and were adopted by Ms. Moran in 2010. She said Cole had some anger, but now, has a “sense of purpose.”
Confidence building is a huge part of gymnastics. Rudd said boosting a child's self-esteem is one reason he started the program.
“They begin to become aware that they're doing something special,” he said. “They're able to talk one-on-one with an adult. They build this self confidence because they become aware that they're doing something pretty unique that not everybody can do.”
A high level of confidence is especially important for those who are competing. A lack of focus and confidence can be disastrous to a routine.
“When you're 12 feet above the ground on a high bar or you're six feet off the ground on a high beam, and things are getting ready to happen real, real fast, we don't have time to stop and say, 'gee, what if,'” Rudd said. “If doubt comes in, they're probably going to fall.”
Little girls, especially those who have gone through the foster system, Ms. Moran said, have a harder time gaining that confidence. Nonetheless, Elle has begun to shine and she's also lost some weight since the camp began.
“She walks around very proud,” Ms. Moran said. “She works so hard in her class.”