Gymnastics'"growth game'
Developing mind, body early key

Thursday, May 7, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Sandi Hanson helps Tara Spurlock, 4, in an obstacle course at American Eagle Gymnastics.
(Steven M. Herppich photo)
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U.S. women's gymnastics coach Mary Lee Tracy says it would be difficult to develop an Olympic gymnast from a girl who hasn't begun the sport by age "7 or 8."

getting started
  • Monday: Baseball
  • Tuesday: Golf
  • Wednesday: Tennis
  • Thursday: Gymnastics
  • Friday: Soccer
  • There might be exceptions, but Tracy has never seen any.

    Perhaps a 10-year-old who is an exceptional athlete and has had the benefit of gaining mental toughness in another sport would be a candidate, but otherwise the window is closed, Tracy said. Why is that?

    "Because strength, flexibility and mental toughness are so important," said Tracy, who owns Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy in Fairfield and trained Amanda Borden and Jaycie Phelps for the 1996 Olympics. "The mind must be developed."

    There is also the matter of what Mark Fahrnbach, director of American Eagles Gymnastics in Eastgate, calls the "growth spurt game."

    "Typically, the kids who go the farthest are those who start mild training at age 6 or 7," he said. "They progress a little bit at a time and stay one step ahead of the growth-spurt game."

    Hanson helps Kayla Mourney, 4.
    (Steven M. Herppich photo)
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    For female gymnasts, puberty is only a few years away and the body changes that come with it: weight, a bust line, wider hips.

    "It goes back to physics: it's easier to flip a small object than a large object," Fahrnbach said. "What you're trying to do (as a gymnastics coach) is get ahead of their body weight and height.

    "Typically, if you don't have it (gymnastics ability) by age 11 or 12, you've lost the opportunity to get it," he said. "The latest I could imagine a girl coming in and still having a chance (to compete at the elite level) is age 11. And, even then, the odds are against it happening."

    Has he ever seen that happen?

    "In 20-plus years (of coaching gymnastics), nobody has surprised us like that," he said.

    At Fahrnbach's club, preschool enrollment is half male, half female. By first grade, it's 90 percent female.

    No gymnastics club is going to turn away an eager youngster age 3 or 4, but Fahrnbach concedes that "gymnastics" is more of an activity than it is a sport for most kids that age.

    "At age 3, 4, 5, you're not teaching a tremendous amount of gymnastics to the kids," Fahrnbach said. "(To develop a competitive gymnast), ideally I'd like to get them by age 6 or 7."

    At Cincinnati Gymnastics Academy, 11 Olympic hopefuls train under Tracy and Steve Elliott. They are there because they are extremely talented and this is the gym they have chosen -- and the gym that has chosen them. Tracy and Elliott keep the numbers small, a total of 12, six per coach.

    Athletes must be 16 years old at the time of the Olympics -- the next Summer Games are 2000 in Sydney -- so 12- and 13-year-olds under their charge would be ineligible.

    As 2000 approaches, the number of trainees will narrow so all coaching is directed toward prospective Olympians.

    When the would-be trainees arrive at Tracy's gym, there is a one-week tryout to see whether there is a mutual attraction between athlete and coach.

    Tracy describes the atmosphere for the trainees as "strict and intense, but not abusive." The sport has had its share of the latter, well-chronicled in books and magazines.

    Tracy said it takes a special athlete to be willing to make the sacrifices to be a world-class gymnast. It requires a combination of the physical, mental - emotional and the willingness to juggle school, workouts and the pressures of competition.

    This applies to both sexes.

    Tracy's advice to parents who feel they have a special athlete?

    "Find a program and a coach that you believe in and trust in and leave the (gymnastics) development up to them," Tracy said. "The other important parts of it -- the schooling, the eating, the rest and the relaxation -- is for the parents to watch over. This will maximize the opportunity (for the athlete to reach his or her potential)."

    Gymnastics is a sport that requires early specialization. Of the nine trainees who were working out Wednesday at Cincinnati Gymnastics, only two said they had ever played another sport.

    There's a lot of good that can come out of gymnastics other than being a high-level, competitive gymnast.

    For example: gymnastics is a good way to improve balance, coordination, agility and to experience individual accomplishment and build self-esteem. That makes for an easier assimilation into team sports, Fahrnbach said.

    "At the early levels of team sports, say baseball or soccer, there are a couple of kids who are the stars, the ones who are always scoring the goals or hitting the ball the farthest," he said.

    "A kid who is on the shyer, more introverted side who gets thrown into team sports can really get turned off by them. They don't have the self-confidence to get out there and mix it up. In gymnastics, we try to get it into their heads, "you can do this.' Then they get out there and aren't afraid to stick their head into it.

    "A lot of parents miss this (concept)."

    Fahrnbach is a physical education graduate of Xavier University and a former high school football coach. He also owns a gym in Columbus where his wife is the director.

    There are about 500 children in the American Eagles Gymnastics Club.

    Here are the numbers: preschool (18 months to kindergarten) -- 200 youngsters; recreational (one-day-a-week children doing it for fun, cheerleaders seeking to get tumbling experience etc.) -- 230; competitive gymnasts, age 7 to 17 -- 70.

    The competitive gymnasts tend to be those who have been in the program the longest. They are a rare breed, rarer than parents think.

    "Only one out of 100 kids who walk in here have the potential to be any kind of a competitive gymnast," Fahrnbach said. "That figure is pretty much universal."

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