Sports

Precautions help Eastern Iowa gymnastics programs outlast USA Gymnastics scandal

"Business is still good" for area gyms

Olivia Orris, 13, practices a dismount from the beam as teammates look on at Twisters Gymnastics in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Olivia Orris, 13, practices a dismount from the beam as teammates look on at Twisters Gymnastics in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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Nearly three years after news of a sexual abuse scandal involving team doctor Larry Nassar rocked USA Gymnastics and the sport as a whole, Eastern Iowa gymnastics clubs are outlasting the sport’s black eye and expanding their operations.

“Overall in Cedar Rapids and in Iowa, all the reports coming in (say) business is still good,” said Todd Beyer, owner of CRAG Gymnastics in Hiawatha. “It really hasn’t impacted (gyms).”

Area gym owners said they’ve been already taking precautions for the safety of kids, so when the scandal hit, customers could differentiate between what happens nationally and what happens locally.

“At the elite levels, it’s such a different level than the normal workings of gymnastics,” Beyer said. “It is a very small percentage that had a direct impact.”

Precautions include not letting a coach — male or female — alone with a gymnast. Coaches undergo background checks and are thoroughly vetted before working with children.

John Mangold, owner of Twisters Gymnastics in Hiawatha, said he also limits the contact outside of the gym between coaches and athletes. Coaches often post videos for training purposes, but are not allowed to contact athletes via Facebook.

 
Many gyms, like Somersaults Gymnastics Center, hire former longtime students who the owners and coaches have known for decades. Somersaults owner Robin Joens said she’s known many of her 15 coaches since they were kids.

“We’ve always been really careful with who works with our kids,” Joens said.

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Other precautions include providing areas for parents to watch everything happening during practices. In some cases, like at CRAG, parents can even hear everything a coach says to the athlete.

Beyer said “common sense” would prevent the whole Nassar scandal.

“I don’t understand. You don’t let your minor child go to the doctor’s office, especially (with) the male-female dynamic,” Beyer said. “That’s what’s so surprising.”

The scandal still shocks Mangold, who said he cannot imagine any club in the Iowa area “to be even close to dysfunction like that.”

“It blows my mind to even think, to even fathom, how that would be a possibility,” he said. “I still can’t wrap my head around how that’s possible.”

The distance between the local gyms and the national scene has resulted in fewer, if any, concerns from parents of continuing members. Beyer said he’s had “zero concerns” from parents of CRAG students. Mangold said no parent at Twisters has “batted an eye” because of Twisters’ reputation of safe gymnastics.

“The people who have been with us, it wasn’t a concern because they know what we’re all about,” said Paige Roth, who owns Iowa Gym Nest in Coralville and Iowa City. “We believe that the most important thing is to have healthy, confident children above (just) gymnasts.”

Following the scandal, more gyms are ensuring these precautions are more formal.

Mangold said Twisters’ standard practices to protect athletes’ safety are now formally on paper.

Iowa Gym Nest now requires its employees to sign a document with the safety precautions instead of just having them read it. Owners often still coach as well, keeping them close to what’s going on around the club.

Since the scandal, these practices have helped many clubs not just survive, but thrive.

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In many cases, gyms have expanded or will expand to larger footprints since the scandal hit. Twisters’ complex has gone from just providing gymnastics in 2015 to now housing basketball courts, soccer turf, baseball practice areas, a slew of beach volleyball courts and even an outdoor bar. Mangold said he offers use of the facilities for a fraction of overhead cost to help local high school sports succeed.

Somersaults is moving into a new facility this fall as well, allowing for more classes and programs and for its teams. The move will happen once summer classes are done in August. Joens said her expansion is necessary to keep up with other area gyms.

“We were the only ones on this side of town for a long time,” Joens said. “The competition sprung up, and, ‘Ooh there’s something new, let’s try it.’”

Area facilities also have gotten more creative in reaching out to potential customers.

Gyms have used myriad of ways to bring new people in the door. One pitch for new members is the benefits for athletes in other sports to train with gymnastics without the injury risk of playing one sport year-round.

“Instead of training them like a basketball player or a volleyball player, they train them as an athlete,” Mangold said. “Focusing more on flexibility, agility and a lot more on longevity life of an athlete. ... I know that once they leave this program, they’ll be better athletes.”

Roth said she has seen many of her athletes go on to succeed in other sports after starting in gymnastics.

“It really is the foundation for all of their sports,” Roth said. “A lot of boys who we’ve had when they were younger and moving up have gone on to be great wrestlers, football players, baseball players and all sorts of things because gymnastics teaches those fundamentals — coordination, balance, flexibility, strength.”

Twisters and Iowa Gym Nest are among gyms to offer “ninja” classes, which includes the flexibility concepts of gymnastics at an exciting pace. Roth said many of her male students go from the ninja program to the normal gymnastics program.

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“Some of the dads don’t like the thought of gymnastics, but then they’ll let them do the (ninja) course class,” Roth said. “And then they realize they like it (enough to do gymnastics).”

 
While Mangold said Twisters is built on achieving the “athletic dream” instead of the “Olympic dream,” other gyms have marketed toward a more competitive audience.

Iowa Gym Nest is the only National Team Training Center in Eastern Iowa, a designation Roth’s club received after Ly Bui made it on the USA Gymnastics national team at the elite level.

Roth pointed to a stretch Iowa Gym Nest’s summer camp athletes were doing that improved flexibility without a negative impact on joints as one of the “most up-to-date techniques” at Iowa Gym Nest. Roth teaches other coaches, traveling to out-of-state lectures and hosting visiting coaches.

Iowa Gym Nest caters to elite competitors, providing a room for students to participate in an online school instead of physically going to class. It allows them to spend six-plus hours in the gym without falling behind academically.

CRAG prides itself as a way to get both male and female athletes onto Division I rosters. Beyer said CRAG is the only club to put male and female athletes on college rosters in the same year. Athletes have gone on to complete at Iowa, Penn State, BYU, Iowa State and Wisconsin-La Crosse.

There has been plenty of concern from coaches, though, about the future of the sport. Beyer has a unique perspective as the Iowa chairman for USA Gymnastics.

“Business owners and coaches were concerned like, ‘Uh oh, what’s going to happen to our sport?’” Beyer said. “But nothing (like a wave of departures from the sport) really materialized.”

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Yet almost three years after the Indianapolis Star first reported on the scandal, there’s still a reluctance to talk about the subject. Two gyms in the corridor either did not respond to or declined The Gazette’s interview request.

It might be because of the concerns in the gymnastics world around losing future customers. Mangold expressed fear of the scandal unnecessarily scaring away future customers.

Gymnastics usually sees a spike in involvement following summer Olympic years — 2012, 2016, 2020, etc.

“Everyone wants to be the next Gabby Douglas or Shawn Johnson or whoever,” Beyer said.

However, Beyer and Roth missed that “big bump” in interest following the 2016 Olympics. Roth attributed it to the damaged reputation for the sport after the scandal.

Moving forward, Beyer is hoping a strong showing from the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team gives gymnastics another big bump in business. If Team USA were allowed to field three teams, Beyer said it would finish first, second and third.

“We’re optimistic,” Beyer said. “Barring some catastrophe (to Team USA) or coverage is bad with TV and stuff, yeah, we’ll expect to see a bump.”

l Comments: john.steppe@thegazette.com

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