- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 30, 2004

You’re never too young to learn gymnastics. Toddlers as young as 14 months can enroll in basic gymnastics courses scattered across the District and beyond.

It doesn’t mean the youngsters will one day replace Mary Lou Retton in our hearts. The sport, though, even at its most elemental level, gives its students a better sense of balance and greater strength and discipline. The vast majority of children learning the sport never intend to compete.

Joe D’Emidio, director of the YMCA Woodmont Center in Arlington, says his program teams parents with toddlers for specialized exercises to increase body awareness.

“All the equipment is low to the ground,” Mr. D’Emidio says. “It’s also not your typical 4-inch-wide [balance beam] but 12 inches wide.”

The exercises may not be what is seen at the Olympics, but the moves help children develop.

“They’re hanging on the rings. They’re jumping from one level to another. They’re learning how to fall,” he says, adding that countless injuries could be prevented if we all knew a more gentle way of taking a spill.

The rules, at least for the youngest students, aren’t set in stone.

“Sometimes they want to dance throughout the whole class,” he says of his young charges.

Mr. D’Emidio’s classes break down instruction by age groups, with the groups getting progressively more challenging as students get older.

For 6-year-olds, the sessions introduce the 4-inch-wide balance beam, the same width used in Olympic competition, he says.

That’s where the Olympic comparisons begin and end for the vast majority of students.

“There’s no pushing a child,” he says. “There are people who push their child, but we’re not a high-powered gym.”

Gymnastics lessons aren’t just for toddlers. The gym’s oldest gymnast is 55 years old.

Still, it’s far easier for adults with some gymnastics training to re-enter the sport than it is those approaching the thick blue mats for the first time.

It depends on “how much athletic ability they had earlier, or maybe they did ballet or swimming. If so, they will adapt very quickly,” he says. “It’s like riding a bike.”

The center works to make sure gymnasts in their 30s or older take things cautiously.

“We have them stretch out really well,” he says. “They say, ‘I’m ready to do a flip,’ but what you’re going to learn is a forward roll first. They’re going to learn the basics first, [though] it might be boring.”

The hardest moves for adults to conquer are the back and front walkovers, which involve arching one’s back.

“They’re feeling muscles they never felt before. It’s not like weightlifting or an aerobics class,” he says. “You’re using all types of muscles you didn’t know you had before. They’re hit two days later with so much soreness, but usually they come back.”

Janet Stolar, manager at MarVa Tots ‘n Teens in Rockville, says her young students must show a capacity for concentration to benefit from the classes.

“A lot of kids don’t have the ability to focus,” Ms. Stolar says. “At 2, you’re really starting from scratch.”

Her students’ goals, like those of Mr. D’Emidio’s students, rarely eclipse the gym’s four walls.

“Very few parents have serious aspirations. Most feel it’s a good physical activity,” says Ms. Stolar, who adds that she accepts new students referred by occupational therapists to help with gross motor skills.

Learning gymnastic movements also has an impact on any other sports a child or adult might play.

“It does help you with other sports. You know a little bit about where your body is in space,” she says.

Most of her students fall below the age of 30, but one sixtysomething senior comes in to work out on the pommel horse.

Bethesda resident Karin Bolte began gymnastics lessons at the age of 5 and, at 36, still tumbles twice a week.

Ms. Bolte, who takes lessons at the YMCA Woodmont Center, admits the sport is much harder to perform as an adult.

That doesn’t stop her and others her age and older from taking lessons.

“I was the best I ever was when I was 12,” she says. As an adult, “you have to be smarter about your workouts.”

Ms. Bolte doesn’t push herself as strenuously as her younger peers, but she still takes her turn on the balance beam and competes against adult students from other gyms when time permits.

“There’s definitely still a place for gymnastics as an adult,” says Ms. Bolte, whose 3-year-old daughter also practices gymnastics.

Roger Nelson, co-director of Fairfax Gymnastics Academy, says the best time for a gymnast to take up the sport is at 3 to 5 years of age.

“That’s when they’re geared to learn movement,” Mr. Nelson says.

His youngest students work on simple exercises, including moving laterally on their hands and feet for mobility and climbing bars for improved grip strength.

Mr. Nelson, whose gym includes safety precautions such as a pit filled with foam blocks to cushion falls, says parents should look for gyms certified by the U.S. Gymnastics Association. Parents also might want to sit in on a trial class to get a feel for how the sessions are run.

The gym should have enough equipment to keep the children occupied. A two-hour course does little good, he says, if the children spend half the time waiting for the parallel bars to be free.

“In a good gym, the kids are moving through the whole class,” he says.

Experienced gymnastics teachers do more than connect with their students, he says. They know how to break complicated moves into easily digestible parts, giving students the confidence to tackle tough movements.

Mr. Nelson says the learning doesn’t have to end when the class session ends. Students can practice their stretches, push-ups and chin-ups in between classes to prepare their bodies for the next lesson.

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