Gymnastics traditionally hasn't been the sport of choice for many young African-American children. However, with the emergence last year of the African-American Olympic champion, Gabrielle Douglas, who snagged the all-around individual gold medal for gymnastics, several athletes from the Washington, D.C., area can see Olympic gold in their future.
This is a goal of 12-year-old Christian Manning from Clinton, Md.
"I want to travel the world and I want to be an Olympian," said Christian, a gymnast for 10 years, who qualified in 2010 to the USA Gymnastics (USAG) Future Stars National Development Team, an elite athlete and education program that puts him on track to the U.S. men's gymnastics team. To prepare for competitions, he goes through routines in his head and "I usually pray," he added.
Christian, a Level 8 gymnast with the Sportsplex Gymnastics USAG Girls and Boys Team of Prince George's County, won the finals for floor exercises, and snagged third on the horizontal bars and the parallel bars at a recent competition at the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Landover, Md. Christopher Manning said his son could definitely become an Olympian.
"He has a heart and a passion for the sport," said Manning, 46, a Metro Transit Police officer. "Christian is very focused."
To reach Level 8, a gymnast must attain specific all-around scores and maintain a competitive standard. USAG, the governing body for the sport, established 10 levels of gymnastics –1 is the lowest, 10 the highest. Levels 1 to 6 are compulsory, where gymnasts compete on the same routine and have the same floor music. Levels 7-10 are optional where routines and music differ among athletes.
Manning said whenever Christian competed nationally, there are probably a handful of African Americans in his division.
"Out of 80 to 100 kids, there are 10 black kids," said Manning, who added that younger gymnasts tended to drop off as they aged because of fear. "Routines become more difficult and less fun as they progress up the levels."
However, Sportsplex's gymnasts enjoyed dominating the competition at the 7th Annual Sportsplex Classic during the weekend of Jan. 25 to 27. The team stood out as a predominately African-American team in its home gym.
That didn't stymie Taatiana Boyd, an 11-year-old Level 8 Junior from Greenbelt, Md., who grabbed second place on vault and beam and third on bars in the finals.
It certainly didn't hold back Audrey Barber, a 13-year-old Temple Hills, Md., Level 9 Junior who was first place in all her final events – vault, bars, beam and floor.
Hours before she competed, Audrey, an 8th grader at Browne Academy in Alexandria, Va., admitted she maintains a routine before entering competitions.
"I get lots of rest and prayers. I focus and remember all the corrections my coach gave me," said Audrey with a child-like grin. Later on the floor, her visage changed as she executed the winning routines. Like her teammates, she started gymnastics at 3.
Taatiana, Audrey and Christian were three of seven upper level Sportsplex gymnasts in the finals, all of whom won many awards.
Kaymon Gerald, 14, a Level 8, earned third on floor and vault; Lena Gillis, a Level 9 Senior was first on vault, beam and floor, and second to Dominique Baker on bars. Dominique, a Level 9 Senior, was second on vault and beam behind Lena; and Tailor Clay, a Level 8 Junior, took fourth on vault and bars.
They maintain rigorous weekly schedules of four-hour practices, five days a week, said Alex Brown, president of Sportsplex Booster Club, the nonprofit comprising Sportsplex families to support all-round leadership development of the gymnasts, and support competitions financially.
"This is an expensive sport," said Brown, 45, an executive at Booz Allen Hamilton. With the number of meets athletes must attend to move to the next level, the finances can be difficult on one family. So, the nonprofit raises funds by hosting meets to help defray costs; coaches focus on winning.
Established fall 2004, Sportsplex USAG Girls Gymnastics Team has excelled, winning state meets at all levels. Gymnasts, ranging from 6 to 18, have been on the state team and competed at the regional level. The USAG girls' current competitive teams are levels 4 to 9. The boys' team, established 2006, has not only won a state title, but has sent gymnasts to regional and national championships. The boys' current competitive teams are levels 4 to 10. The Sportsplex Mason Dixon team, established 2006, is a growing competitive team with gymnasts who enjoy competing at meets throughout the season.
"Although gymnasts compete individually," said Karen Price-Ward, vice president of the booster club, "this is a team sport with lots of dedication and tough love from the Sportsplex coaches and booster club to see these young women and men excel in this competitive sport."