Going the distance for a program that emphasizes fun rather than competition By Drew CarterJosh Hawkins / Chicago Parent Cherie Hamaj practices bars with the help of coach Nancy King at Tri-Star's new Hillside location.
When Tri-Star Gymnastics announced it was moving five miles west of Forest Park-its home of 12 years-to Hillside, Ann Schroeder of River Forest did not hesitate.
"I wanted to go where Tri-Star went," she says, "because the women who lead it are an incredible group of leaders. They have a really solid program, and [my 9-year-old daughter Elizabeth] is really committed to it."
Elizabeth has flipped, tumbled and landed at Tri-Star for five years, and is in her second year of being on a team there.
There are about 5.1 million gymnasts ages 6 and up in the United States, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA). However, the sport is on a slow decline, says Mike May, communications director for SGMA. "Many don't have access to the sport through their schools anymore," he says, adding that often people do not have the resources to go to a private gym.
Other reasons for this decline may include high-pressure coaches, ego deflation and eating disorders that are rampant in gymnastics. Tri-Star offers an alternative. "Our philosophy is that anybody who wants to do it can do gymnastics at whatever level they're willing to commit to," says Lynn Allen, a co-founder and one of three directors of the non-profit gym.
"One of the reasons I'm there," says fellow River Forest mom Elizabeth Simon, "is that I think so highly of the coaches. They have respect for the sport, they teach safety and they make it fun. I think that's a pretty good combination.
"And I like that you can be any kind of size and still be on the gymnastics team. There are kids of all shapes and sizes there. It's not this, ‘You have to be thin to be a gymnast.' There's no one way to be a good gymnast," says Simon.
She says the program has given her daughter Abby, 11, a "solidness" that not all kids in her sixth grade class have. "She says, ‘If I want to do this I can do it,' " Simon says.
And, it gives Abby something she doesn't get at school. "She does well academically, but there's more. She's a gymnast. That means she identifies with other girls and has role models at Tri-Star."
"They look at the development of the whole person as an athlete, not just at intense competitive drive," says Schroeder. "They're helping healthy, strong girls become their athletic best. I don't think that's true of every program."
Indeed not, according to David Schlundt, an associate professor of psychology who studies eating disorders at Vanderbilt University. Anorexia nervosa and bulimia are found in higher concentrations in certain groups, such as gymnasts.
But the main concern with young female athletes is athletic amenorrhea, which interrupts a girl's cycle and causes her to stop menstruating. Excessive exercise coupled with eating less can bring on the condition, which shuts down estrogen production, causing bones to lose calcium.
"The result is that girls end up with stress fractures," Schlundt says.
But Tri-Star coaches emphasize nutrition, not dieting, says Allen. And that's key.
"Coaches play a very important role: They set the tone," says Schlundt. "If coaches are very critical of girls and their appearances and tell them when they need to stop eating, they can encourage pathological behaviors."
The Simons and the Schroeders have found a way to make the trip to Hillside-which can take an extra 10 minutes or more each way-more doable. They car pool rides with two other families whose daughters are in the Tri-Star program.
While each family would have made the trek individually, "it's way easier to handle in a group," says Simon. "Before, you could just roll out of bed and be there in five minutes. Now it needs more planning. That makes a big difference from a parent perspective."
Car pooling is not just a time-saver, it's led to friendships.
"They got close over this past summer because they all had to make the commitment," says Simon. "They were the ones still standing when the music stopped. That really brought them together more than they had been."
And it's also brought the families together. They now socialize outside of classes and car pools. "We all feel the camaraderie," says Schroeder. "These girls are like best friends."
But not all parents see it the same way. Allen says the gym has lost more than 50 percent of its enrollment since the move.
"We're hoping that people will make the trip and notice that it's not that bad," Allen says.
The gym is offering special one-day classes for $1 to lure families back. "We hope they recognize the unique relationship they had with Tri-Star," says Allen.
Meanwhile, the gym's nonprofit status allows it to pass out flyers at toy stores, libraries and just about every place the directors can think of taking them in Hillside, Broadview and Bellwood.
The high schools in the area do not offer gymnastics programs, so Tri-Star is reaching out to communities such as Elmhurst and Northlake, too.
Drew Carter is a writer and reporter for the Wednesday Journal, a sister publication of Chicago Parent.