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Spring chickens: Gymnastics is no longer just for the young

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More older gymnasts are sticking with the sport or trying it for the first time. At Chelsea Piers in New York, N.Y., one of the nation's largest programs with more than 500 adult students, Coach Hector Salazar helps an older gymnast complete a backflip. (Courtesy of Chelsea Piers)

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Adult gymnasts take advantage of the expansive facilities at Chelsea Piers in New York City during a recent beginner class. (Courtesy of Chelsea Piers)

Once a week, Victoria Kariolic goes to gymnastics class. While dance music blasts over the sound system, she and her fellow students giggle and yelp as they practice cartwheels, back handsprings and flip from the trampoline into a foam pit.

But Kariolic is no typical gymnastics student. She’s a 33-year-old Web producer who goes back to the office after her lunchtime workout. Like many young girls, Kariolic was inspired by Mary Lou Retton to try gymnastics as a child, but she didn’t stay with it for long. Still, she never quite lost interest.

“When I heard there was a class for adults,” Kariolic said, “I couldn’t resist the temptation.”

This time it stuck. Kariolic has attended class regularly for the past year and a half, lost 50 pounds and overcome many of her fears.

“The hardest thing adults have to learn is to fall,” she said with a laugh. “It hurts to fall when you’re an adult.”

It may hurt, but more adults are willing to take the chance. Across the country a movement is underway to transform gymnastics from a competitive sport for the young to a lifetime activity.

At the international level, the opportunity to make money and the changing nature of competition are keeping athletes in the game, while at the club level, coaches are making changes to encourage gymnasts to keep training through college and beyond. Meanwhile, recreational gyms in 32 states now offer adult classes to newcomers like Kariolic.

Youth still pervades Olympic-level competition, but several U.S. and international gymnasts are extending their careers past their teens. Chellsie Memmel, who will be 20 when the torch is lit in Beijing, and veteran Nastia Liukin, who will be almost 19, are both expected to contend for medals on the U.S. team. Oksana Chusovitina, a 32-year-old mother who made her international debut in 1989 competing for the Soviet Union, is considered a potential finalist in the vault competition as a member of the German team.

Careers were once cut short not by age but by finances, said Bart Conner, who won two gold medals in men’s gymnastics at the 1984 Olympics, and happens to be married to Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who scored the first perfect 10 in Olympic gymnastics in 1976 at the ripe old age of 14.

But now, because gymnasts are allowed to win prize money in dozens of professional events around the world, “you’re able to earn a living doing gymnastics,” Conner said.

A changing emphasis from all-around competition to specialization has also allowed older gymnasts to focus on their strongest events--or simply those that impose the least wear and tear on their bodies.

On the women’s side, a rule change requiring women to be at least 16 years old before Olympic competition has brought up the average age of the U.S. team. In the Athens competition, the median age was 20, up from 18 at the previous Olympics.

But not all gymnasts go to the Olympics, and requiring them to train like they will is shortsighted, said Paul Spadoro, who has been the New York State chairman of USA Gymnastics, the gymnastics governing body, for 30 years.

“It takes a lot of work to become a high level gymnast,” Spadoro said. “The burn-out rate is very high.”

To change that, the United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs, the national organization that organizes competitions at the recreational level, has imposed guidelines limiting training schedules, encouraged relationships between youth teams and college coaches and added a “22 years and older” division to some of its competitions.

Older gymnasts are “great role models for the sport,” said Spadoro. “They’re not working on scores, and they’re not trying to win championships. They just really love gymnastics.”

Julie Wojtulewicz started competing in gymnastics in sixth grade, but when it came time for college, she felt tired of gymnastics and decided to choose a school based on academics.

Then, just as she was thinking of leaving the sport forever, the adult gymnastics club at American University in Washington, D.C., caught her attention.

“It seemed like a good fit,” said Wojtulewicz, now a junior at AU, majoring in international studies. “I couldn’t really think about not doing gymnastics, but varsity would have been too much.”

With about 25 teammates ranging from beginners to former elite gymnasts, Wojtulewicz is learning to appreciate the sport in new ways.

The club holds practices five days a week, but it is understood that attendance takes a back seat to academic demands. More advanced teammates take time to encourage teammates and help them work on basic skills.

“There is no coach,” she said. “We kind of coach each other.”

With no facility on campus where the team can practice, they travel to a gym outside the city, and fund their expenses through T-shirt sales and cartwheel-a-thons.

All that bonding helps club members develop close friendships, said Wojtulewicz, which is reflected in their approach to competition.

“We try to just have fun,” she said, “and we don’t worry too much about the scores.”

Beginners are also finding ways to take advantage of the serious fitness and fun of gymnastics.

Kariolic attends class at Chelsea Piers in New York, which claims to have the largest adult gymnastics program in the country. More than 500 adult students come to the 13 classes offered each week, some to learn something new and others to continue training they started as children.

Kariolic’s recent beginner class was attended by--among others--a soccer player, two male Broadway dancers and a practitioner of capoeira, a Brazilian martial art that combines combat moves with acrobatics.

No one is too old to benefit from the strength, speed and agility that gymnastics training can offer, said Joey Garcia, 37, who has coached adult gymnastics at Chelsea Piers for five years.

The main barrier to adults learning gymnastics is mental, Garcia said. While the 3-year-olds he teaches are usually eager to try challenging new tricks, adults are often thinking things like “uh-oh, I’ll get hurt. I won’t be able to work,” said Garcia.

Adults who want a more intense training experience can find it at places like Camp Woodward, a Pennsylvania sports camp for kids, which opened one week to adults last summer.

“We couldn’t think of any reason why adults shouldn’t be able to take advantage of the benefits of gymnastics,” said Greg Frew, director of cheerleading and gymnastics at the camp. Though getting used to curfew and lights out, he noted, took some adjustment for the grown-ups.

E-mail: omp2111@columbia.edu