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Gymnastics Class for Kids Shapes Future Olympians

By Mathew Katz | March 5, 2012 8:01am

CHELSEA — As the class of 4-year-old girls lined up against the wall, their coach wanted to know one thing.

"Handstands — How long do you ladies want to stay up there for?" asked Soomi Kim.

"Twenty," shouted one of the tumbling tykes.

With that, the girls performed perfect handstands — up against a wall — and held them longer than many adults can.

Their instructor uses games, circuits, and routines to teach the kids how to point their toes, stick their landings, and swing gracefully on bars — all in the hopes that they'll one day be doing the same before a panel of judges.

As competitive athletes get an earlier start, programs like "Future Stars" at Chelsea Piers have become more common. The once-a-week invite-only gymnastics course selects the top toddlers that coaches believe have a future in the sport, training them in the basics of how to jump, swing, and tumble.

"The girls have to show that they can listen and take instructions," said Kim, who spent 11 years as a gymnast and teaches the sport at all levels.

"But one of the most important things is that they seem to really enjoy it."

Many of the girls in the Future Stars class started out in "Mommy and me" classes just after they turned 1-year-old. Coaches at Chelsea Piers keep their eyes peeled for students that seem particularly good — the ones that are naturally flexible and pick up on skills quickly.

"I just try to keep it fun, but also let them know when it's time to listen," Kim said. "That comes from putting on that straight, serious face, but having fun once in a while to let them know that I'm not going to haunt them in their nightmares."

Parents who enroll their daughters in the class hope to see them grow up to become competitive gymnasts, and the class has been a starting point for many girls who eventually join Chelsea Piers' competitive team.

Liz Schefrin, who already had one daughter on the team, pulled her other daughter Jamie out of another program because of the attention she would get at the Future Stars program.

"She's learned about body control, following directions, being part of a group," said Schefrin. "If she continues to enjoy it, ...[it] could be something she could pursue."

Other parents just want their athletic daughters to have fun.

"I don't know how much that's apparent at age five," said Sarah Wartski.

"But she's active and she enjoys the longer class — and she comes home very happy and — most importantly — she's tired."