South Charlotte

Hard work drives these gymnasts' success

Southeastern Gymnastics is housed in a tan building just off Providence Road in Weddington with just a small sign on the door. It's easy to miss if you're not looking for it.

But when you walk in, it's impossible to miss the row of championship banners that line the back wall of the gym.

Southeastern Gymnastics, arguably the best gym in the state and one of the best in the Southeast, continued its dominance this year by winning the Level 7, 9 and 10 championships at the N.C. State Gymnastics Championships in Greenville in March. The gymnasts also are participating in regional competitions this month and the national championships in May.

The secret to their success is simple: hard work.

"What I've found is, whatever you want to achieve, hard work will put you there," said Ludmilla Shobe, who started the gym in 1997. "The hardest working, they get first."

Shobe was born in India but grew up in the Soviet Union. She started doing gymnastics at age 8 but found her passion as a coach at 14. She moved to Charlotte from Belarus in 1991 and worked at two other Charlotte-area gyms before starting Southeastern.

Ryann Anderson, 16, a junior at Charlotte Catholic started at Southeastern eight years ago. She had heard the coaches there pushed the gymnasts hard, but she also knew their reputation for success.

"Every time you went to a meet, everyone knew who Southeastern was. They were always the best," Anderson said. "The first day I came it was the hardest day of my life, but, I don't know, I just fell in love with it here and never looked back."

Kailyn Hawkins, 18, has been at Southeastern for 10 years. When she first came even the warm-up was hard.

"It's a little bit more intense than other gyms, but I think that's good for us," said the Providence High senior. "I think that's what makes us perform well."

Along with increased intensity, some of the gymnasts have to overcome a bit of a language barrier. Most of the coaches, including Shobe, grew up outside the United States. Galena Meliakina was a choreographer for the USSR National Team from 1982-1990 before joining Southeastern Gymnastics in 2004. Nikolai Cherchen graduated from St. Petersburg State Academy in Russia in 1994 and coached in Poland before joining Southeastern in 2001, and Lizvette Soto competed in Puerto Rico.

Anderson said she had to ask other gymnasts what the coaches were saying to her. In time, the gymnasts said, they get used to it.

"You get used to their sayings," said Hawkins. "You understand what they're trying to say."

Sarah Persinger, 18, earned her nickname - "Cheese" - from Cherchen because her first name sounds like the Polish word for "cheese."

Despite working the gymnasts hard, 12-year-old twins Anna and Grace Glenn said, they have fun at practice.

"They're really tough, but it's good to have tough coaches," said Anna, adding that the coaches can be pretty funny.

Spending so much time together - gymnasts usually practice four hours a day, six days a week - the coaches and gymnasts become like family.

Shobe "is like a mother," said Persinger. "You can go to her and say anything, and I know she'll listen."

Like a mother, Shobe takes pride in how her gymnasts perform. She enjoys coaching more than the administrative side of running a gym, she said; she spends every day in the gym, calling it a "24-7" job.

This year, three seniors in the program earned college scholarships: Hawkins to Nebraska, Persinger to Georgia and Haley Watts to UNC Chapel Hill.

That means more than any banners hanging on the wall.

"I'm so proud," said Shobe. "I feel so, so proud to see them growing up from babies, and then they're going to college on a full scholarship."