Making a sport more inclusive

Gymnastics can be a heartbreaking sport.

A gifted athlete can simply grow too much, a child who loves the sport but lacks talent can't find a spot to compete, or kids might just get tired of the double-digit hours of practice required every week at competitive levels.


That's why Kristin Anderson and Katie Gursky flipped over a relatively new movement in the sport called general gymnastics. Anderson, who owns one of Howard County's four independent gymnastics clubs, Columbia Gymnastics, and Gursky, who coaches there, are enthusiastic about the concept offered by the sport's governing body, USA Gymnastics.

"It's based upon the idea that it's a sport for everyone, no matter what your age, size or ability," said Anderson.


In general gymnastics, or GG as it's called, a team focuses on performance, not competition. The exhibition routine is performed on the large mat commonly seen in floor exercises "and what they do with it ranges from tumbling to dance to the acrobatics seen in cheerleading," said Anderson. There are no required moves, and no judges.

Gursky added that the 10-minute routines are done to music and often incorporate a theme and props; this year's theme is "The Wizard of Oz."

Apparatus can be used; Anderson recalled seeing one team where volunteer dads whisked bars out onto the mat for a part of the routine, but a mini-trampoline is the most commonly used piece of equipment.

Teams have opportunities to travel to gym festivals - this year Gursky and her assistant coach, Donna Widmaire, will take the team to Washington in May and to Orlando, Fla., in June. In Florida, the team will perform at Sea World as part of USA Gymnastics' national gymnastics festival.

"The whole idea is to give kids a chance to be part of a team without being high-level gymnasts," said Anderson.

Added Gursky: "I have girls who can just do cartwheels and girls who can do round-off back handsprings." One child on her team, now in her second year with the group, has Down Syndrome.

"These kids are talented, but they don't have to be superstars," Gursky said.

Team members, who range in age from 8 to 15, are chosen for their love of the sport, for their ability to work well with others and their commitment to being on a team. Routines can be based on individual strengths. Boys are welcome, but to date the Columbia team is all girls.


Unlike competitive gymnastics, which can find youngsters practicing 10 or 11 hours a week, those in general gymnastics have one weekly two-hour practice, and they must take one additional gymnastics class, based on their ability.

The concept of general gymnastics is popular in Europe, and it is growing rapidly in the United States, providing an outlet for the countless numbers of kids who enter the sport. One Carroll County gymnastics organization fields a large GG team at national events. At Columbia Gymnastics, the team, which started in 1999 with eight girls, now has 18 - and Gursky dreams of traveling to international meets.

"Some kids are never going to be competitive gymnasts," said Gursky. "But they love the sport. We wanted an opportunity for all of our girls ... to go a little bit farther with their gymnastics."

Alden Kilbourne, who will be 11 next month, likes the team aspect.

"I like that you're not performing alone, that you're all together, like sharing the performance," she said. And although she takes advanced gymnastics classes on the traditional apparatus, "I like that it's not all strict gymnastics. It has dancing in it, too, and stunting, too, like tricks where we throw teammates up and other teammates catch them."

Alden's mother, Susan, who teaches tap dancing, helps with the choreography. That vantage point has let her see how the girls learn to work together.


"There are a couple of things we like about it," she said. "It's a group event rather than individual. They have to work as a unit - that's different from traditional gymnastics. For my particular kid, she doesn't need the kind of pressurized environment that individual competition fosters. Right now, what she wants is the team aspect. She's having fun with it - she's met some great girls, and they're learning how to work as a group."