When 9-year-old Elana Lugo grows up, she wants to be an Olympic gymnast with a gold medal.
Particularly, she wants to twist and flip like U.S. champion Gabby Douglas. After watching Douglas bring home the all-around gold medal two years ago from London, Lugo spent hours on YouTube, entranced by videos of famous gymnasts and their high-flying routines. Lugo was inspired.
“I want to do that one day,” she said, recalling her early desire for the sport.
Immediately following the 2012 Olympics, Lugo was among the wave of young girls in the San Diego region who were motivated to sign up for gymnastics classes. For girls like Lugo, it is the first step towards becoming a future champion.
Enrollments always skyrocket after the summer Olympics, according to coach Chris Mangano, co-owner of TRC Gymnastics in Sorrento Valley.
“These girls see gymnasts like Gabby Douglas and Nastia Liukin doing cool tricks on TV, and they want to do the same thing,” Mangano said.
But coaches warn that even though the champions make gymnastics look easy, getting there takes dedication, stamina, and money.
“Gymnastics looks cool, there’s no doubt about that, but it takes years and years of hard work,” Mangano said. “Before joining, it’s important for parents to consider the undertaking that the sport demands.”
Mangano says that it is most common for girls to begin their gymnastics careers when they are 4 or 5 years old. Depending on coordination level, they will either be placed in a beginning pre-level class where they will learn basic movements, or they may go straight to level 1.
Level 1 is the beginning of the USA Gymnastics Junior Olympic Program, which goes up to level 10. Gymnasts in this program work their way up the ladder to compete at higher and higher levels, until ultimately, they may be given the opportunity to compete nationally and internationally. The Junior Olympic Program gives girls the chance to live their dreams and earn their way to the Olympics. Here is a breakdown of the program:
Each year, gymnasts are chosen from the national championships to be a part of the elite program – the highest level in gymnastics. In this program, gymnasts compete at the international level, and may ultimately rise to Olympic status.
Making it this far however, takes not only dedication and hard work, but skill as well. Mangano says that some girls are natural gymnasts, while others are not.
“From the beginning, it’s easy to see who has it, and who doesn’t – who will be invited to team, and who will stay with the recreational classes,” Mangano said. Unfortunately, not all girls are cut out for team and competition he said.
“Girls will come and go,” he said. “Some may only stay for a year or so, while others spend much their childhood and adolescence here. I’ve watched many of these girls grow from the little toddlers they were 12 years ago, to now, high-schoolers who are applying to colleges, and preparing for their senior proms.”
Darryl Davis, head coach and founder of TRC Gymnastics in Solana Beach and Sorrento Valley, says that his girls have become his second family. He is proud of the positive impact he has on his gymnasts, some of whom have advanced beyond TRC to compete at higher levels, and still keep in contact with him years later.
Srength & Flexibility
When it comes to flexibility and strength training, Davis says that he’s been known to be somewhat of a loveable tyrant. Although he says he has lightened up over the years, he continues to stress the importance of, and enforce both of these components. If a gymnast isn’t up to par – if she isn’t flexible enough, or if she doesn’t have adequate strength for her level, she will not be allowed to move up a level, even if she has all her skills.
Each day, optional gymnasts are in the gym for four hours. At TRC, an hour-and-a-half of that time is devoted strictly to stretching and conditioning. Even during the four, 45-minute rotations on each event, strength and flexibility stations are worked in, so that gymnasts are continuously working on these components throughout their workout.
MULTIMEDIA: Gymnastics Coach Darryl Davis explains why strength and flexibility are two crucial factors in gymnastics.
Logan Butler, now 16, started gymnastics as a beginner student at the age of 2. For 14 years, she has ‘worked her butt off’ to progress to level 8.
For 14 years, she has trained alongside some of the same girls, who have become her best friends.
“If it weren’t for them, I probably wouldn’t still be doing this,” Butler said. “They keep me going, and keep my head up when things get tough.”
Now on a competitive team, Butler is in the gym with the rest of her teammates Monday through Friday, straight after school until dark, 20 hours per week. Some might want to put in even more hours, but the National Collegiate Athletic Association allows no more than 22 hours each week.
“I miss out on school activities,” Butler said. “And I miss out on hanging out with friends because I spend so much time here. But it’s okay, I never really tire out, because I love what I’m doing.”
While Butler and her teammates spend more time with each other than their own brothers and sisters, they do not advance to higher levels as a team. Each individual gymnast progresses at her own pace, and the time it takes to progress varies for everyone. While many of the girls on Butler’s team now, are the same girls who were on her team in level 4, some have progressed faster, others slower.
“We won’t push them forward if they are not ready, even if there is parental pressure to do so,” Mangano said.
Mangano says that being a gymnast, at least a competitive one, requires immense dedication and responsibility, not only for the athlete, but for the parents as well. Competitive gymnastics is a serious commitment, and the decision to get involved will change not only the gymnast’s life, but her family’s too, he says.
Tamar Gollan knows the type of commitment Mangano is talking about. For years, Gollan has been adjusting, and re-adjusting her schedule, so that her daughter, Orli Gollan-Meyers, can make it to gymnastics class. Orli, 8, is on the level 4 compulsory team and is in the gym eight hours per week.
She has minimal time for play-dates, and has had to give up karate lessons to make more time for gymnastics. With each level, her schedule has become increasingly more demanding, and it will continue to do so as she continues to progress. By level 7, Orli will be in the gym 20 hours per week.
“We have to make sacrifices on both ends,” Gollan said. “Now that Orli has advanced to team, her training time has more than doubled, and I often have to leave work early for her.”
Gollan sits on the floor, cross-legged with her laptop, as she watches her daughter train. Like the other parents, she tries to make up for her lost time at work while she waits, but sometimes, she says it’s an unsuccessful attempt.
“It can be a challenge,” Gollan said, “but Orli loves it, and that’s why I do it.” Orli works hard and stays so focused because she has Olympic desire flashing bright in her eyes.
Gymnastics is not cheap, especially competitive gymnastics. Aside from lessons, which, depending on the gym, can cost families more than $1,000 each month, there is the added cost of:
For Gollan, travel takes out the second biggest financial chunk from her wallet, next to class fees.
“There’s a lot of driving back-and-forth,” she said. “There are some massive, complicated carpools going on, and the carpools don’t always work out, which creates an even bigger inconvenience.”
While catastrophic injuries are not as common as other contact sports, the typical sprain or tear is, says Mangano. Butler has injured herself with sprains more times than she can remember, and says that the same holds true for her teammates.
“The pain never fully goes away,” she said. “It’s always something. If its not my knees, it’s my wrists, and if it’s not that, it’s my ankles. Gymnastics is just plain stressful on the joints.” Joint braces, support boots and athletic tape can be seen on almost every team gymnast at TRC at one point or another, Mangano says. Injury comes with the sport, he says, there’s just no avoiding it.
Along with sprains, rips are another common injury of the sport. A rip is a bar-related hand injury. It is a tearing away of skin on the palm of the hand or wrist caused by either a callous build-up, or by holding on to the bars too tight. Both beginning and novice gymnasts get rips. Even with grips, an accessory to aid in gripping the bar better, rips are inevitable, regardless of how good a gymnast is, says Mangano. They can be bloody and painful, and could take weeks to heal.
Butler has also had more serious knee injuries, which also can be common among gymnasts. For three months, she spent her time in a knee brace, unable to practice any events after dislocating her kneecap while tumbling – her worst injury yet. Still, Butler showed up to gym everyday during those three months to condition her muscles until she was ready to get back into it.
“It can be a mental struggle,” she said of injury and the sense of falling behind. “But because I love gymnastics, because I love the people around me, I get through it every time. I wouldn’t give it up.”