ROGERS PARK — Arguably one of Chicago's most unique teenagers has become a master of one of the world's most unique sports.
Lincoln Park 17-year-old Jack Gomberg is the top-ranked American in wheel gymnastics — a mesmerizing-to-watch discipline featuring a rubber-covered steel wheel from which athletes spin, roll and vault.
"I love just how different and amazing wheel gymnastics seems to people," Gomberg said. "You can just roll the wheel out and people go wow."
Surprisingly, Gomberg has participated in the sport for only four years. But he has a background that makes wheel gymnastics a perfect fit.
Gomberg's mother, Arla, said he started rolling over at 10 days old and crawling when he was 4 months old.
"He was one of those crazy agile babies," she said.
Gomberg hasn't stopped moving since. As a 5-year-old, he joined CircEsteem, an Uptown-based organization that teaches circus skills. Quickly, he learned juggling, tumbling and trapeze.
Two years ago, Gomberg tried out as a wheel gymnast on "America's Got Talent" and appeared on Nickelodeon's "Figure It Out." He also recently directed, choreographed and performed in a wheel gym show for CircEsteem, which provides programming for at-risk youth.
"Ideally, for my career, I would create my own performance art — something like Cirque du Soleil or Blue Man Group," Gomberg said.
Gomberg's coach, Uptown resident Wolfgang Bientzle, has won eight world championships and is considered the Michael Jordan of wheel gymnastics. Gomberg began wheel gymnastics after Bientzle joined CircEsteem, and the coach said his student had all the traits to star in the sport.
"He's focused, ambitious, friendly, courageous and brave," said Bientzle, a Germany native who has lived in Chicago for eight years after two years as a Cirque du Soleil performer in Las Vegas.
Wheel gymnastics originated in 1924, when a German locksmith Otto Feick created a Rhönrad (German wheel). The sport features three disciplines: straight line (see a Gomberg video here), spiral (video here) and vault (video here). Point totals are determined by combining scores from the three events.
While the sport still is not well-known in America, Bientzle said there will be about 50 athletes in this weekend's tournament. In July, North Park University will host the world championships — the first time the sport's biggest event has come to the United States.
Gomberg and Dave Ettelson, a junior at New Trier High School who also was in "Figure It Out", are the U.S.'s top hopes to win a world title. At the last world championships, held in Germany, Gomberg took seventh and Ettelson finished eighth.
"Even though we're rivals, we're great friends," said Ettelson, a former Lincoln Park resident and Francis Park School student. "We always help each other out."
Gomberg said making friends like Ettelson has been one of the best parts of being a wheel gymnast.
He said the sport also has allowed him to meet people from all over the world.
"And it's just fun," he said.