MORGAN PARK — The crowd in Morgan Park was literally doing backflips on Saturday afternoon ahead of the opening of the new Morgan Park Sports Center.
Of course, much of the audience was made of gymnasts eager to test their skills at the new facility at 11505 S. Western Ave. The 64,000-square-foot center also includes an NHL-size ice rink.
"All these extra-curricular activities allow our kids to find out something about themselves," Mayor Rahm Emanuel said just before cutting a ceremonial ribbon.
"Now we don't have to answer the question on the street anymore, 'When is it going to open?'" Kelly said.
Indeed, ice hockey teams began practicing at the new facility on Sept. 1. Park district programming began on Tuesday, but the center didn't officially debut until Saturday with a cosmic-themed ice skating event.
Ald. Matt O'Shea (19th) said already more than 800 children have registered for programs at the new facility, which offers ice skating lessons, hockey and gymnastics.
"For those that said we didn't need this facility, I'd point to those numbers," O'Shea said.
Kelly Sabo of Morgan Park grew up training in the Chicago Park District's gymnastics facilities. Her specialty was floor exercise, and her coach was Juan Mendoza, who will now work with gymnasts on the Southwest Side.
"She could do these awesome round-off backs. I still remember that," Mendoza said of his former protegé.
Sabo said gymnastics taught her discipline as well as empowered her with physical endurance and a strong mentality. She hopes her daughters — Maura, 7, and Finley, 4 — can pick up these same characteristics at the new center.
"It's amazing to have a beautiful facility like this in our backyard," said Sabo, who competed in Italy and Germany as a gymnast.
Mendoza helped design the gymnastics portion of the center and believes it has the potential to bring Chicago its first homegrown Olympian.
He's also working with the park district to develop a way to cover the ice surface so the new center could host a large-scale gymnastics event. He believes the center is fully capable of being a regional draw in this way.
Maya Stephani, 17, of Morgan Park, had given up synchronized ice skating about five years ago. But she vowed to return to the sport after stepping on the ice in her neighborhood.
"I'm so happy that they opened this rink. It's amazing," said Stephani, who reunited with her former coach Kathy Janik at the rink.
Brendan Cunningham's sons — Tommy, 7, and Sean, 5 — are aspiring hockey players from Morgan Park. The two boys play with the St. Jude Knights Hockey Club and skated on the new ice rink for the first time Saturday.
Cunningham expects to spend plenty of time in ice rinks over the next several years if his boys stick with the sport, and having a rink so close to home is a definite benefit.
"I really hope St. Jude gets a lot of ice time here," he said.
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