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Harford competitive gymnastics program fighting for the reopening of Churchville recreation center

Anna Hill is no stranger to being up in the air. The 18-year-old gymnast from Abingdon is used to flying between bars, back flipping on balance beams and spinning through the air on her way to a future as a collegiate-level gymnast.

But what caught Hill and some Harford County residents flat-footed was the extended closure of the county-owned Churchville Recreation Center where her team practices while other gymnastics programs across the state and county — and even minutes down the road — continued training through the COVID-19 surge that began in November.

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The All County Parks and Recreation gymnastics program is the only of 42 Maryland USA Gymnastics member clubs in the women’s competitive program that isn’t able to practice at its home gym due to COVID-19 restrictions. ACPR has about 100 competitive gymnasts and supports roughly 700 recreational gymnasts.

Gymnasts’ parents have taken their concerns to the county government, then the county council, to make the case for safely reopening the gymnastics program. The county government owns the Churchville rec center building and closed parks and recreation programs in November amid a worrying spike in coronavirus metrics, but parents and the team’s coach maintain that it can be reopened safely, as it was between June and November.

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An online petition to reopen the facility was started and has gotten about 1,050 signatures as of Monday. Parents are also planning a protest in front of the county administration building at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.

All the while, because of the sport’s conditioning requirements and year-round practice schedule, gymnasts could be losing the skills they worked long to hone.

Now Hill has to drive two hours round-trip from Abingdon to Elkridge for 3 and a half hours of practice three days of the week and one or two days on weekends — far from the 20-plus hours of gym time she used to log in Churchville every week to keep her skills sharp.

“It is definitely frustrating just because, around the state, around the country, all these places are open,” Hill said. “Any other senior who is this far into the college process is not dealing with the same thing.”

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Like other gymnastics programs in Maryland, All County Parks and Recreation Gymnastics’ practices came to a halt in March, coach Steven Cornelison said, when the coronavirus pandemic first hit the U.S. The facility was closed by the order of Gov. Larry Hogan as the slow ripple of COVID-19 started in the state. But in June, the facility reopened for practice.

During the initial closure, ACPR, along with other gymnastics facilities across the region, discussed ways to stay open and COVID-compliant. ACPR submitted an 11-page plan to Harford County government in June showing how they could reopen safely, including disinfecting equipment, giving each gymnast her own personal bag of hand-chalk and reducing practice times and cohort sizes among other steps.

Because gymnastics is an individualized sport, they argued that the chances of COVID-19 transmission with the proper safety measures were slim.

The Churchville Recreation Center is shown in this file photo. The facility, which is owned by Harford County Government, has been closed since November because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a gymnastics group that uses the building without a regular home to practice.
The Churchville Recreation Center is shown in this file photo. The facility, which is owned by Harford County Government, has been closed since November because of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving a gymnastics group that uses the building without a regular home to practice. (MATT BUTTON | AEGIS STAFF)

County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said the facility was closed again to protect county staff working there and gymnasts themselves. The decision to close the facility, she said, was not made because of any cases stemming from the gymnastics program, but for the community spread the county saw in November.

Even though other gymnastics facilities in the state and county are open, Mumby said, the county was not entertaining an exception for ACPR. Indoor gatherings, she said, are obviously a safety concern in view of the pandemic.

“There is no doubt these programs are valuable and folks care deeply about them,” Mumby said. “At the same time we need to balance that with safety of the folks who are using the facility but also the broader community.”

Mumby acknowledged the challenge that presents parents, who have to go elsewhere to get their children time in the gym, and assured them that no one wants the facility closed. She said the county looks forward to reopening it “as quickly as possible.”

The county’s phased reopening plan for parks and recreation programs would allow indoor recreation council programs — like ACPR Gymnastics — to resume when all county staff has had the opportunity to receive the vaccine. Mumby said the county hopes to accomplish that by March 1, but the availability of vaccines is the biggest hurdle to the effort.

While ACPR is closed, Cornelison said, other gymnastics facilities in the state — and even Harford County — remain open. The competition season is ongoing, and while other teams get to practice uninterrupted, ACPR’s gymnasts do not. Cornelison said they have had to carve out time at other gyms who let them use their facilities.

“It is for the kids, and I feel so bad for our program,” he said. “They really feel like they are being selected out.”

Gymnastics is a year-round sport, Cornelison said. Through a dizzying gamut of tournaments, state qualifiers, regional competitions and meets, serious gymnasts have to stay conditioned on multiple levels, training the flexibility, strength and technique that helps them avoid a surprise meeting with the cushioned floor or a more serious injury.

Cornelison has coached at ACPR since 1983 and seen scores of gymnasts come and go. The program has graduated a number of talented gymnasts and some members are part of ACPR’s junior Olympic team, which is a stepping stone toward college gymnastics and the U.S. Gymnastics’ elite levels, Cornelison said.

Those on ACPR’s team, which competes against others, generally practice 16 to 22 hours per week, he said, in a normal year.

“If you stop a month or so, the kids will backtrack immediately,” he said.

ACPR parents were not content to let the program lie fallow. They took their concerns to two January meetings of the Harford County Council, where over 20 parents made their case to the seven-member board. They repeatedly pointed out that ACPR was the only program of its kind that was closed.

Lacey Zankowitz has two children in ACPR’s gymnastics program — an 8-year-old level four and a 10-year-old level five. Before the pandemic, they practiced about 12 to 14 hours a week. Now, they are down to about three to six with ACPR’s closure, also driving an hour to Elkridge. That schedule, Zankowitz said, puts ACPR’s gymnasts at a disadvantage as other programs still participate in competitions.

“Our girls aren’t going to be competitive like they would have been had they been practicing,” she said.

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That was made apparent when ACPR’s team had a virtual meet at an Elkridge facility they are allowed to use a couple weekends ago. Zankowitz said one of her daughters scored markedly lower than she usually does. She had never scored a 7 until then.

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“This meet just showed the lack of time in the gym,” she said.

Maryland USA Gymnastics State Administrative Committee Chair Beth Renwick said that, while private programs are open, some other counties’ recreation council programs are also running. They are not going about business as usual, though; the facilities have to adjust to pandemic-related guidance, but have found success in doing that.

“Within the 42 clubs there are four other county facilities that have reopened — one in St. Mary’s County, one in Charles County, and two in Prince Georges County,” she said. “Make no mistake, no one is open and operating as before the pandemic; there is a new ‘normal.’ However, everyone else is open in some capacity and their girls are competing.”

Anna Hill, a gymnast with ACPR from Abingdon, is shown during a recent practice at a gym in Elkridge. ACPR gymnasts have had to find other venues to practice and participate in virtual meets while the Churchville Recreation Center in Harford County remains closed.
Anna Hill, a gymnast with ACPR from Abingdon, is shown during a recent practice at a gym in Elkridge. ACPR gymnasts have had to find other venues to practice and participate in virtual meets while the Churchville Recreation Center in Harford County remains closed. (Courtesy Steven Cornelison)

For Hill, ACPR’s closure has a real effect. The senior at Notre Dame Preparatory School is a level 10 gymnast — the highest the junior Olympic program goes — and is looking at the real possibility of pursuing gymnastics in college. Already, she has received offers from Cornell University and Brown University, she said. She is also waiting on several other schools.

As part of her recruitment, she has to maintain her skills and send periodic video updates to the relevant coaches.

“These coaches are relying on me to send them videos and constantly be making progress in the gym,” she said. “If I’m not in the gym I can’t really do that.”

After ACPR closed, she had trouble getting gym time, and while home-conditioning helps, it is not a substitute for using the proper equipment. Because of that, Hill lost some progress she made. She was just lucky to find somewhere to practice.

“It’s not something you can keep up at home,” Hill said. “I can’t do the bars or the beam in my backyard.”

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