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Gymkana team sends positive message to St. Agnes School students

Wearing a red tank top and black shorts, Joe Kreft calmly waited his turn to flip through the air in front of a captivated crowd of about 100 students at St. Agnes Catholic School on Friday.

From the front of the line of fellow members of the University of Maryland Gymkana team, Kreft sprinted down a track, leaped onto the first of two trampolines, bounced to the second, soared more than 10 feet above the gym floor, and did two forward somersaults.

The Catonsville resident couldn't stick the landing.

But his execution didn't matter as much as the message that he and his 74 teammates on the University of Maryland Gymkana team sent during their Friday morning visit.

The gymkana team promotes a healthy lifestyle through its performances that include aerial acrobatics, dance and gymnastics routines.

Each team member signs a pledge to abstain from using drugs, alcohol and tobacco products.

"It felt cool to show the kids that if they work hard and try to do good, they can do great things like this," said Kreft, who graduated from Loyola Blakefield and is now a junior electrical engineering major. "We really do have (the students) captivated, from the first warm-up pass."

The team performed two 60-minute acts for the students and Kreft also did stunts over the vault box and as part of a pyramid.

The University of Maryland Gymkana team performed on season six of the television show,"America's Got Talent,"and made it to the semifinal round in summer of 2011.

The team gained notoriety when one of the performers' uniforms ignited after he jumped through a ring of fire. He was not injured.

Of the 12 performances the gymkana team has scheduled this semester, last week's one may be the most special for Kreft, an alumnus of the Catholic school off Baltimore National Pike.

"We're basically performing for them saying we're enjoying ourselves without drug and alcohol," Kreft said. "It's nice to go back and try to give something to the kids."

Domonique Parkes, another St. Agnes School graduate on the gymkana team did not make Friday's trip. The 2009 Catonsville High graduate had a scheduling conflict, according Susan Banks, principal of St. Agnes.

Banks said she felt that the message from the athletes would hit home for the school's 270 students, especially those in the seventh and eighth grades.

"Many of them are so interested in sports," Banks said. "To be able to see these young people come in and know that they can't do any of the drugs and the drinking and this type of sport (is powerful)."

St. Agnes, Banks said, paid $1,064 to book the gymkana team's visit. Much of that was for the team's transportation, which included a moving truck that brought the team's trampolines, iron ring and high bar set ups and balance beams to the campus on St. Agnes Lane.

Kreft couldn't pin down one reason he liked gymkana so much, but called it a 2-hour stress reliever after a long day of classes.

His favorite part of the gymkana team is performing in shows like last week's at St. Agnes.

In addition to spreading a positive message, Kreft finds the eight-hour days enjoyable, despite the grind of packing and unpacking equipment, because of his teammates and the thrill of the sport.

"I enjoy it a lot. It keeps me in shape. It keeps me healthy," Kreft said. "Going to that first practice my sophomore year is probably the best decision of my college career so far."

His former gym teacher at St. Agnes, Trish Armstrong, recalled how he excelled at the variety of sports she introduced to the class, though gymnastics was not among those offerings.

More than that, Armstrong recalled how devoted he was to his fitness.

"I could tell by the way he took his running seriously that he was into being fit," Armstrong said, recalling how Kreft would set his watch to time himself in events.

"I never thought it would lead to this," she said. "That's pretty good."

Kreft said he played a variety of sports through elementary, middle and high school, including swimming and soccer.

When he entered the University of Maryland after graduating from Loyola in 2009, he found himself in unfamiliar territory regarding physical activity.

His freshman year was his first year without structured athletics and he found he missed the structure and activities.

"When I started college, joining an exhibition gymnastics team wasn't on my to-do list," Kreft said.

The gymkana welcomes people of all skill levels, Kreft said.

Despite his status as a beginner during his sophomore year, in only a few months he was performing handsprings off a vault.

"It doesn't sound like a lot (of time), but really, once you get there, everyone's really helpful," Kreft said. "All it takes is the willingness and motivation to ask someone."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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