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Gymnastics schools benefit from Olympic-sized dreams

Local academy follows the nationwide trend of higher enrollment after the much-watched Summer Games.

By Melissa Caron
mcaron@charlotteobserver.com

For gymnastics schools, the summer Olympic Games are more than just entertainment.

Schools nationwide are seeing an uptick in interest for the sport after the U.S. team's success in Beijing.

Some are looking for a hobby. Others are dreaming bigger – to be the next Olympic star.

“We always look forward to every four years when the Olympics comes around,” said Nick Baker, owner of Charlotte Gymnastics Academy.

Annual enrollment usually increases by around 25 percent in the year following the Summer Games, he said. The school, started in 2002, usually has about 300 gymnasts during the academic year. The school's seven coaches expect to see more than 350 enrolled because of Olympics coverage.

In the year after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body, saw a 6 percent increase in membership. This was double the growth seen in the two years before the games. In Athens, both the men's and women's U.S. gymnastics teams received silver medals for all-around team.

USA Gymnastics has more than 110,000 members – athletes and instructors.

There are more than 5.2 million gymnasts over 6 years old in the United States, with more than 900,000 frequent gymnasts – those who do the sport for more than 100 days a year, according to USA Gymnastics.

Len Clemmer, co-director of the Clemmer School of Gymnastics in Pineville, has seen boosts in his business in the year following the Summer Games. But he said the increased interest usually trickles off after a year.

Most new athletes recognize the difficulty of becoming an Olympian, Clemmer said, and approach the sport more as a hobby. Neither the men's nor women's U.S. gymnastics teams placed at the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney. USA Gymnastics saw a drop in membership of 1 percent from the previous year following the Olympics.

The drop came partly because the events were not televised during prime time and because of the team's poor performance, said Loree Galimore, director of club services at USA Gymnastics.

But the failure of the U.S. men's team to place in Sydney prompted 2-year-old Bobby Costea to let his parents know he'd do better when he competed in the Olympics, said his mother, Karen. Now 10, Bobby trains five days a week for the Charlotte Gymnastics Academy's competitive team. He still dreams of being an Olympian. From Lincolnton, the pair commutes 45 minutes to the gym – on a good day, Karen said.

As soon as the Olympics schedule came out, Karen programmed her cable box to record all the gymnastics events. Bobby, like other boys on his competitive team, favors U.S gymnast Jonathan Horton.

Galimore expects interest to be even higher this year because of the U.S. teams' standout athletes and NBC's airing of the gymnastics during prime time.

“People are glued to their TV sets,” she said. “You see these new heroes coming up.”

As yawning fans watched early Friday on TV, U.S. gymnast Nastia Liukin,18, won the gold medal in all-around for individual women's gymnastics, while teammate Shawn Johnson, 16, took silver. The U.S. women's team won a silver medal and the men's team received a bronze this week during the team competitions. Horton, 22, placed ninth in the individual men's event on Wednesday.

With gymnasts such as Liukin and Johnson, the country may see a sweetheart as popular as gymnast Mary Lou Retton emerge, Galimore said. Retton became the first female U.S. gymnast to win a gold medal in all-around gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.

Baker said he already has many people calling about fall enrollment.

“I always joke with our regular gymnasts that they better sign up early for classes because everybody and their brother wants to be a gymnast by the time the Olympics are over,” he said.

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