SPORTS

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January 27, 2006

Club gymnasts find relaxed climate for sport at last

Gymnastics is not known to combine its physical demands with a support system of easy-going parents and coaches. Yet the U of C Gymnastics Club, which does not participate in competition, has managed to practice and promote the sport–alternately lauded and skewered in the media for its adolescent, exceedingly sprightly competitors–in a surprisingly relaxed and social environment.

Gymnasts and gymnastics tend to bounce into the public consciousness every four years with the commencement of the Summer Olympics. After two weeks, however, the sport is pushed into the background by the more popular institutions of football, basketball and baseball. The noticeable lack of elite gymnasts over the age of 17 leads many to consider gymnastics a realm of hyper-competitive wunderkinds. Several club members with prior experience in the sport became disillusioned with gymnastics at early ages when the pressure to compete replaced any emphasis on fun and physical fitness.

“Coaches try to catch you when you’re young and mold you into the competitor they want you to be,” third-year Scott Baillie said. “If they find out that you don’t fit perfectly with what they want you to become, they’ll drop you.”

Baillie, who began tumbling as a toddler, trained with a coach until the age of 13 when he was told he could either completely devote himself to competing or quit. After five years away from the sport, Baillie found out about the club and jumped at the chance to do gymnastics purely for enjoyment and physical fitness when he heard about a small student-run organization that practiced at the Lab School several times a week.

The opportunity to take a crack at–or in Baillie’s case resume–practicing gymnastics in adulthood is a rare one. Most private gyms are costly and are primarily devoted to training gymnasts who will peak in their mid-teens. The physical and mental demands of the sport also tend to deter older, more cautious potential club members.

“Most people are turned off by the perceived danger or difficulty of the moves we do,” fourth-year and club president Ivan Beschatnikh said. “But anyone who is relatively fit can do a summersault, and most other skills are more technical than they are physically taxing. Learning and practicing is key, more key than working out.”

“To be a really good gymnast, you do have to start young because as you get older it becomes increasingly difficult for your body and muscles to conform to what is ideal for a gymnast,” Baillie said. “But an older person who just wants to learn some of the basic skills and get a workout wouldn’t have much of a problem. Probably the hardest thing to do is get over your fear of doing some of the moves.”

Along with the inherent allure of the sport, members are drawn to the club primarily because it offers an opportunity to get a good workout outside of Ratner or Henry Crown.

“I’ve always wanted to try gymnastics,” graduate student Brad Nelson said. “And the gym was getting really boring.”

The club offers three practice sessions a week in Kovler Gymnasium, a small but fully outfitted practice space. With a balance beam, high, parallel and uneven bars, a pommel horse, vault, rings and a “tumble tramp,” the gymnasts can hone their skills on all major gymnastic apparati. Workouts are led by Beschastnikh, a former captain of the city-champion men’s gymnastics team at New York City’s Stuyvesant High. Until this year, the club has had an instructor. Beschastnikh, however, has proved to be an able teacher.

“[Ivan’s] especially good with beginners, but he leads a good workout overall,” Baillie said.

The coed practices open with a series of stretches and tumbling exercises. Experienced members of the team impart their knowledge of the various moves to the greenest of beginners or anyone looking to perfect their form. Club members then disperse and focus on a specific apparatus or hone their skills on all of them. At the end of each session, members regroup for the muscular endurance portion of the evening. Regular attendance, though not required, produces enviable results.

“With enough dedication beginners develop muscles they never knew existed. Which is usually very rewarding especially since you don’t have to commit yourself to attending Ratner every day to haul iron brick-like things back and forth,” Beschatnik said.

Nelson, who joined the club at the beginning of last quarter, has become a proficient tumbler, having mastered the forward-flip. Along with the exhilaration that often accompanies acrobatic skill, Nelson has felt the physical benefits of regular gymnastics workouts.

“I went on a 50k bike ride last weekend,” Nelson said. “I wasn’t even tired.”

As with many athletic clubs on campus, the main draw of the gymnastics club is the laid-back social atmosphere at practice. For an organization devoted to gymnastics, however, it’s a novel and highly coveted experience for club members used to draconian coaches and fiercely competitive gym atmospheres.

“It’s really different to have an environment like this,”Baillie said. “At my old club, they used to have a huge sign hanging over the whole gym that said ‘We Don’t Care’ and the coaches always used to point to it whenever you weren’t doing exactly what they wanted to you to do. Thankfully, that’s not the way it is here.”

“It’s great to be able to come and get a work-out, especially with a group as social as this one,” Nelson said. “It’s extra incentive to get up, work out and wake up with sore muscles the next morning.”

Sports clubs at the U of C tend to fold pretty quickly if they demand a lot of money and commitment from members. Private gymnastics gyms don’t pride themselves on promoting fun, relaxed environments. The U of C gymnastics club has managed to bridge the gap, bringing together concerned former gymnasts and enthusiastic beginners to make the world of gymnastics just a little friendlier.