Showing up for an interview for a newspaper article on the reach and impact of AAU gymnastics, Rachel Coutinho told her story without saying a word.
Donning the black-and-red shirt of the North Mecklenburg Soccer Club, Coutinho exemplified what being an AAU gymnast is all about. An athlete can have other interests and doesn't have to be tied down to only gymnastics in order to participate and compete.
Next weekend, hundreds of gymnasts like Coutinho - who spent much of her day last Saturday at a soccer tournament in Greensboro - will converge on Lake Norman Charter School to compete in the AAU Gymnastics State Meet.
Coutinho's home gym, Huntersville's White Lightning Cheer and Tumble, is co-host of the meet, and about 50 of its athletes will compete. Twenty-five gymnasts from the Lake Norman Y Angels program at the Lake Norman YMCA in Cornelius will also participate.
Still a fledgling program compared to the more popular, and more intensive, USA Gymnastics, AAU gymnastics is on the rise in North Carolina. Under the direction of Huntersville resident Jessica Harris, AAU gymnastics organized in 2008 and has grown exponentially since.
Harris worked at the Lake Norman YMCA three years ago when she founded N.C. AAU Gymnastics. The program's goal is to downplay the kind of commitment that elite gymnasts make to compete in events sponsored by USA Gymnastics, the general standard-bearer for gymnastics in the United States.
"(White Lightning) offers a competitive team for kids that don't want to practice 25 hours a week," head coach Hannah Shepherd said, "which is great for those who can't or don't want to commit that much time to it or be that competitive."
Rachel and Rebecca Coutinho, 13-year-old twins from Cornelius, said "on a good week" they may spend four days at the gym, totaling 12 hours. Because they are more committed to their soccer team, however, when North Mecklenburg plays in tournaments, the time the Coutinhos give to gymnastics may be even less.
Plenty of gymnasts compete only in USA Gymnastics events; some also compete in AAU events. But like the Coutinhos, 13-year-old Alyssa Marsh and 11-year-old tennis-playing sister Maddie, both of Davidson, limit themselves to AAU competitions. They say AAU competition is simply less demanding than USAG events.
Alyssa Marsh is also a competitive swimmer for SwimMac, and her commitment to it continues to grow. Last year, she said, she spent three days a week with gymnastics and two days in the pool. This year she has changed her emphasis, dedicating four days to swimming and two to gymnastics.
"I swim competitively mostly, and AAU (gymnastics) lets me be more flexible with my time," Alyssa said. "It (is held) all year-round, so I can pick and choose meets I want to go to so that it doesn't conflict with my swim schedule.
"In USAG, there are fewer meets and they are more important."
Shepherd said, "If Alyssa were to compete in USAG, it would be setting her up for failure. If there wasn't AAU for her, she wouldn't be able to do gymnastics at all. I wouldn't be able to keep her in the sport.
"To have AAU reward something like that is such a blessing for us."
The first AAU Gymnastics State Meet was in 2008 at the Lake Norman YMCA, when membership in the AAU program was 130. Three years later, after two consecutive state meets at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, membership has reached more than 700.
This year, more than 300 athletes from AAU's 13-member gymnastics facilities, are expected to compete in the state meet, which includes competition in vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. Individual and team awards will be given in various skill levels.