At 14, Stephanie Flaksman spends 20 hours a week hanging out—at the gym, not the mall. As a result, earlier this year she earned a spot as one of eight members of USA Gymnastics’ junior national rhythmic gymnastics team.
Rhythmic gymnastics—an Olympic sport that is extremely popular in Europe but less well known here—requires top girls to do split leaps and back walkovers while tossing and catching ropes, hoops, ribbons and balls. “It’s a good way to spend your time instead of computers and video games,” says Flaksman, an eighth grader at Northbrook Junior High School who trains with the Illinois Rhythmics team in Deerfield.
And parents who worry about their daughters falling off bars and beams are turning to the more earth-bound version of this sport.
While Texas is the home of famed Olympic gymnastics coach Bella Karoli, you might not realize Illinois is also a mecca for top gymnastics programs.
The Chicago area boasts three major rhythmic gymnastics programs and dozens of centers that teach artistic gymnastics, the Mary Lou Retton-style sport with the balance beam, uneven parallel bars, vault and floor exercises for girls and pommel horse, rings, high bar, parallel bars and floor exercises for boys.
But kids don’t need Retton’s body type or Olympic dreams to take classes at even the top gyms. All offer recreational programs for toddlers through teens. Preschoolers generally take a 45-minute class once a week, whereas elite high school athletes may spend as many as 30 hours a week in the gym.
My own daughters, Jazzy, 8, and Gigi, 5, stretch, twist and bend their bodies with Illinois Rhythmics coaches. And they enjoy putting on fancier-than-usual leotards and hair scrunchies for competitions and gymnastics shows at places such as Northbrook Court. Me? I’m not a stage mom, I’m a gymnastics-mat mom.
Get kids moving
Today a growing number of young gymnasts in Illinois and the rest of the nation dream of following in the handsprings of 2004 U.S. gold medalists Carly Patterson and Paul Hamm.
An estimated 4 million American children participate in gymnastics. Of these, 100,000—more than two-thirds of them girls—compete in artistic gymnastics. That’s up from 59,300 in 1994 and 35,300 in 1984, when Retton became the first female gymnast from the United States to win Olympic gold, scoring perfect 10s on her floor exercises and vault. In Illinois, there are 2,818 girls and and 621 boys who compete in artistic gymnastics.
Interest also is growing in rhythmic gymnastics, which became an Olympic sport only 20 years ago. Today 3,500 U.S. girls participate in rhythmic gymnastics—up from 2,300 a decade ago. Traditionally, it’s been wildly popular in Eastern Europe but little known in the United States. (The top U.S. competitor, Mary Sanders, placed 15th at last summer’s Olympics.)
“Kids there [in Eastern Europe] grow up with a ball and a hoop in their hand rather than a baseball and a football,” says Brian Eaton, spokesman for USA Gymnastics, the national governing body for gymnastics in the United States.
Like most sports, gymnastics gets kids moving. And physical activity is more important than ever now that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 16 percent of children are overweight. Gymnastics builds strength, flexibility, agility and coordination, which kids can use later in any other sport they may choose.
“Every kid is not going to be a competitive gymnast,” says Ken Cajet, president of the Northbrook Gymnastics Training Center. “But I guarantee you they’ll be a better athlete if they do gymnastics.”
Choosing a style
Which form of gymnastics is best for your child? When they’re young, they can try both artistic and rhythmic. But if they start competing and spending three days a week at a gym, they probably need to choose. Here’s a rundown of what the sports require: n Rhythmic: It’s an easy choice if your child is a boy. Rhythmic gymnastics is just for girls. Unlike artistic gymnastics, which only uses music for one event (floor exercise), rhythmic uses it at all times. Not surprisingly, with all those tunes, “it’s more like dancing,” says Gabi Swecki, 12, of McHenry. In fact, classes for competitive rhythmic gymnasts incorporate substantial amounts of ballet. Rhythmic also is good for kids (and moms) who worry about falls off the high equipment used in artistic gymnastics. “It’s kind of high on the balance beams,” says Swecki, who prefers to be more grounded.
In rhythmic gymnastics, being tall is an asset, though hardly a requirement. Long legs look more dramatic when they’re stretched out into full splits. One famous champion was 5-foot-11, notes Irina Vdovets, owner of Illinois Rhythmics and a former U.S. Olympic team coach. And girls don’t need to be small enough to curl their bodies into tight balls for aerial flips because rhythmic rules prohibit “flight.” In rhythmic, somersaults and back walkovers are allowed, but flips are not.
Rhythmic equipment—which girls usually decorate in their team colors—is great fun. Girls toss rubber balls, bowling pin-shaped clubs, hoops, ropes and ribbons (on a stick)—excellent for building hand-eye coordination. “It feels cool when you can do stuff,” says Nina Galoustian, 11, of Wilmette. “I like the competitions and the shows, and I like performing my routines.” Like all rhythmic gymnasts, she competes on a 42½-foot square piece of carpeting.
Girls can start with 45-minute, once-a-week, mom-and-tot classes at 2, even before they’re potty trained. Elite girls spend 25 hours a week in the gym during the noncompetitive season from September to January and 30 hours during the competitive season. (This year the U.S. national competition is scheduled for August.)
Rhythmic gymnasts are known for their dancing ability and their flexibility. Some former rhythmic gymnasts join the Cirque du Soleil; others dance for Ricky Martin and Madonna, says Vdovets, whose club this year boasts two girls on the eight-member junior national team and two girls on the eight-member senior national team—a better record than any other club in the nation. n Artistic: For kids who dream of doing back flips and dramatic dismounts, artistic gymnastics may be a better choice. It’s also ideal for kids who want to build strength and agility for other sports, such as wrestling, diving, aerial skiing, even football.
“Walter Payton was in gymnastics programs when he was young,” says Todd Gardiner, owner and head coach of Illinois Gymnastics Institute in Westmont, which enrolls 1,500 gymnasts. Many top athletes, including former Bears stars Otis Wilson and William “Refrigerator” Perry, signed their kids up for gymnastics, he says.
And why not? “Gymnastics builds agility, balance, confidence, strength and flexibility,” says Mike Bush, boys’ team program manager at Buffalo Grove Gymnastics Center. “And it’s not a full-contact sport, in the sense of colliding with another individual.”
Coaches, who tend to be former competitive gymnasts, tout its versatility. It builds coordination, self-confidence and skills used in other sports. Athletes who developed their leg strength and coordination in gymnastics have received track scholarships for high jumping and pole vaulting, says Cajet. “We have girls who went on to doing crew because of the upper body strength it builds.”
Gymnastics is relatively safe, but parents should check to make sure a gym uses well-trained coaches and properly padded equipment. Instructors should take safety certification courses, and the gym should be clean—a good, general quality indicator. Many gyms let you observe classes in glass window-lined lobbies. To prevent injury, good programs also stress stretching at the beginning and end of classes.
There are many artistic programs to choose from, ranging from the Illinois Gymnastics Institute (tops at producing elite girls) to Buffalo Grove Gymnastics Center (tops at producing elite boys) to various park district-sponsored programs. Artistic centers tend to divide their programs into three areas: tot (for preschool and kindergarten kids), recreational (for first grade through high school) and competitive.
Gym costs vary
For little ones, the Chicago Park District charges $40 for 10 once-a-week sessions. For advanced gymnasts training 22 hours a week, it charges $90 for a 10-week session. “[I]t’s like 41 cents an hour,” says park district gymnastics manager Cindy Morano. Each week the Chicago Park District serves 3,400 gymnasts, some of whom started as young as 18 months.
Prices are higher at private gyms. At Buffalo Grove Gymnastics Center, competitive boys who spend 22 hours a week pay $270 (or about $3 an hour) per month. The Northbrook Gymnastics Training Center in Northbrook’s 10-week sessions for its recreational gymnastics programs. It charges $115 for 50-minute parent-and-tot classes, $130 for one-hour classes for 3- and 4-year-olds and for kindergartners and $145 for 75-minute classes for elementary school kids. Gyms typically also charge a $25 fee per year to cover insurance.
Even the youngest children can try some form of gymnastics and build their motor-skill development, balance and hand-eye coordination. Illinois Gymnastics Institute, for example, lets 18-month-olds (with a parent) bounce on a little trampoline and walk on a miniature balance beam. “It’s play. [But] they learn how to be disciplined, how to keep form, a little flexibility,” says Gardiner.
Dolly Alvarez says gymnastics helps their kids perform well in school. “They develop discipline, and they’re very goal oriented,” says Alvarez, whose daughter, Megan, 12, spends 25 hours a week at the Illinois Gymnastics Institute. Most of the girls at IGI are on the honor roll, she says.
Gymnastics is a year-round sport—but it’s particularly appealing during Chicago winters. And classes are appealing to parents (like me) who want their kids to bounce on trampolines, not just beds. Your kids may even get you to try cartwheeling again. Mine did. Gigi, using her coach’s language, earnestly advises me to make my legs arc “like a rainbow.” I try.
Karen Springen, the mother of two young gymnasts, is a Chicago-based correspondent for Newsweek, where she has worked for nearly 20 years.