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Elite, technically speaking

Mary Scott Alexander wants to be an elite gymnast one day, maybe even compete in the Olympics. So the Charlotte 11-year-old plans to be home-schooled starting in the fall. That will make it easier for her to practice more at her training center, Southeastern Gymnastics.

Budding gymnasts such as Mary are expected to train like varsity athletes at Southeastern, part of the Weddington Activity Center near Providence and Weddington roads. That's the regimen favored by the center's staff.

And the staff knows how to train elite gymnasts. Four of them, including director Ludmilla Shobe, have coached on national levels in Eastern Europe. It's rare for an N.C. gym to have such a coaching pedigree, and it's likely a reason Southeastern has developed many standouts.

“When you say Southeastern, I think of extremely, extremely good quality – technical quality,” said Jennie Adams, U.S.A. Gymnastics' N.C. chair. “It comes from (honing) the basics and that Eastern European complex of skills they begin children with.”

Eastern Europeans are known in gymnastics for being tough, regimented and precise. And champions.

For every American sweetheart like 1984 Olympic gold medalist Mary Lou Retton, there has been a Nadia Comaneci (1976 gold medalist for Romania) or Svetlana Boguinskaia (Olympic gold medalist for Belarus).

Bela Karolyi, who coached Comaneci, emigrated to the U.S. in 1981. He later coached Retton and the 1996 American women who won a team Olympic gold medal. After the breakup of the Soviet Bloc in 1991, many Eastern European coaches followed him to the U.S.

Some of those coaches came to work at N.C. gyms. But few of them have worked with world champions, Adams said. That's what makes Southeastern stand out.

Shobe launched Southeastern in 1997 in Monroe, moving it to Weddington in 2003.

A native of Minsk, Belarus, Shobe was selected to be a gymnast by a Soviet coach at age 7. She began coaching while still competing at 12, and started working with 6-year-old Boguinskaia at 14. She became Boguinskaia's full-time coach on the Soviet national team in 1988 and moved to Moscow to work with her. She helped her qualify for the 1988 Summer Olympics and win three gold medals at the 1989 World Championships.

By 1991, Shobe was a bit burned out from coaching and raising a 1-year-old daughter (“You're almost not home for a year and a half,” she said). She got an offer to coach at Wendy's Gymnastics Center in Charlotte from a German coach she knew. The USSR was crumbling.

So she moved to Charlotte.

Shobe coached at a few Charlotte area gyms but longed to start her own program. So she founded Southeastern. Her program stresses dedication (20-25 hours per week of training) and working with experienced coaches who share her values. She hired three veteran Eastern Europeans to coach.

The coaches push the 100 girls on Southeastern's competitive teams, many who are preteens and younger. They drill the girls in the basics. It's the way they were taught in Eastern Europe. “They expect perfection of smaller, simpler movements,” Adams says.

Their goals are to teach the girls perseverance and that hard work pays off. They seem to have found kindred spirits in some of their students. “I think I might have some gifts,” Shobe says. “My kids love to work hard.”

Carly Levi, 11, of Charlotte has been training at Southeastern for four years. Her coaches are demanding, she says. When asked if she likes that, she replies, “Sometimes.” But they help her improve, she says, and that's important to her. They also help satisfy Carly's competitiveness; she won state meet events in Level 6 in 2006.

Mary qualified for the national meet at Level 9 this year. “It feels good working very hard,” she says. “They push us hard but they make it fun, too.”

The coaches incorporate games and competitions into practice. They also care about the girls. During a practice last week, Shobe hugged a preteen student who landed a back flip on a balance beam.

When Carly dislocated her elbow during practice two years ago, Shobe called an ambulance and tracked down her aunt running errands nearby. Shobe then visited Carly in Presbyterian Hospital and gave her flowers, and recommended a doctor who had daughters in gymnastics.

The girls love coach Nikolai Cherchen, who often jokes around and allows them to try new moves.

“The other coaches, they're perfectionists,” says Alex Alexander, Mary's mother. “It's tough. It's really tough. I don't know how these kids come in here day in and day out…

“That's why Southeastern always wins. It's not always fun.”

No. The focus is usually on hard work. Shobe sets an example with her work ethic. The 42-year-old mother of two trains gymnasts six days a week, seven when Southeastern travels for meets.

“Crazy, right? Crazy job,” she said after a full day of practice last week. Then Shobe leaned back in a black leather chair as light shone through a small window in an office inside the Activity Center. Clad in a maroon Southeastern T-shirt, she leaned forward and added: “I just love it.”