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Preparing their minds, bodies and spirit on the mat


Stars & Stripes competitive gymnastics team



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October 12, 2011 - By Don Rush

Hard work and dedication.

Mental toughness and plenty of heart.

As the leaves turn colors, and the temperatures drop these personal characteristics sum up a number of local athletes -- the young ladies of Stars & Stripes Competitive Gymnastics team.

For a team started just seven years ago, they have accomplished much. Many of the girls on the competitive team, started at Stars and Stripes when they were in kindergarten.

"Our original plan was not to start a competitive team right away, but we had a really talented groups of kids," said gym co-owner Cassie Davis (who along with her husband Nathan Davis coach the competitive team). "We had to think, 'Do we point them in the right direction, send them to another gym or not?' But, we liked them and we liked their families. So we decided to start a pre-team and two years later they started competing in the Junior Olympics . . . we built it from the bottom up. A lot of teams will take girls from this gym or that. We have taken girls from other gyms, but only if they were at the level of our current girls. We don't take girls who are at higher level than our girls."

Stars and Stripes competes under the USA Gymnastic governance, there are different competitive levels -- starting at Level 4, up to Level 10.

"We have a unique Junior Olympic team," Cassie Davis said. "We have a smaller team. We want quality over quantity, which is rare. We have a thousand students that come to our gym, but relative to our size, if you compare us to another gym, they may have 100 kids competing, we have 45."

They also have 35 kids on a Junior Olympic pre-team Olympic pre team, ranging in age from three to nine-years-old.

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Cassie and her husband Nathan Davis coach-up the girls and their parents. Photo by D. Rush (click for larger version)
The competitive season is January through May. USA Gymnastics divides the country into eight regions. Michigan is in Region 5, which also includes Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. During the season, the team will travel nearly every other week to different meets in any of those states.

Level 8, 9 and 10 athletes can qualify for Regional Championships; levels 9 and 10 can qualify for the National Championships.

The girls are "extraordinary kids," Davis said. "There is no off season. We practice more during the off season. During the summer, when the kids are not in school, we will practice 25-30 hours a week -- for the higher level girls. During the school year, they will train during 20 to 25 hours."

The lower level athletes will train ten to 18 hours a week.

The 2011 season was a good one for the team. Three of the four of the team (competing at Level 9) qualified for the National Championships in Worcester, MA. Emma McLean was a national champion on vault; Jacquelyn Yates was national champion on the balance beam (she was also a Regional All-Around Champion); Madelyn Bagley qualified for nationals and finished 2nd on the uneven bars and 6th all-around.

Overall, the team garnered 27 state championship awards, nine regional champions (plus the two national champions). To top it off, Davis was named Compulsory Coach of the Year (in 2010, husband Nathan received the award).

This 2012 season will be a first for the Stars and Stripes team -- their first season competing at the highest level -- those little five-year-olds who started seven years ago have moved up the ranks. Four team members, Madelyn Bagley, 13; Jacquelyn Yates, 14; Emma McLean, 14; and Emilee Incammicia, 16, will compete at Level 10.

According to Davis, aside from being exceptional young people to begin with, competitive gymnastic gives participants an edge over their peers.

"Our girls work through fear, and pain. They handle constructive criticisms, and are tough enough to handle it. They are mentally tough kids.

"They come in here and conquer fears day after day. They get out of their comfort zone day after day. It's a great experience for life. Our girls will not be afraid when they go out for a job interview, go to college or move out of state, because on a daily basis they face fear.

"And the most important thing," she said, "is they set goals -- day to day, week to week and long term goals. They have learned through the program if they work hard, stay at it they can accomplish something. Knowing the value of hard work, is huge. Anything is possible."

Sometimes the coach worries about her girls. Do they have enough time to be kids? Do they train too much?

"I am sure there are nights they are up to midnight getting home work done. But, they all get good grades, do community service and some are on the National Honors Society. Will they have regrets later on? It is reassuring to me, these girls have found a balance. They can commit to a sport they love, have a social life with friends and get their school work done."

Cassie said it has to do with the kids they accept and the parents who raise them.

"We are looking for kids who want to be there, versus the kids whose parents push them to be here. The kids whose parents have set the goals are the kids who are uncoachable. A lot of them truly don't want to be here. And, a very important part of our program is to educate parents."

Part of coaching up the parents, she said, is teaching them how to keep their poker faces on when their children compete. When to ask questions and when to lay off. They are also given the suggestion not to watch practices.

"We don't want kids to worry about what their parents think while training. We want them to focus on what they themselves are doing."

Currently the staff is helping the older girls figure out their futures. Asking them to list what colleges they want to attend and building recruitment videos.

It is a lot of work running a gym and coaching competitively. Is it worth it?

"Being with them day in and day out, I coach everybody, from the lowest level on up. Nathan and I want to know everybody and their parents. Because of them, I try to live my life to a higher standard. Every day they motivate me. They inspire me. They probably don't know that, but it's true."

Stars and Stripes is located on White Lake Road, between the railroad tracks and Andersonville Road. For more information, check out their website at www.starsandstripeskids.com.

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Don is Assistant Publisher for Sherman Publications, Inc. He has worked for the company since 1985. He has won numerous awards for column, editorial and feature writing as well as for photography. He has two, sons Shamus and Sean and resides in the area. To read archived copies of his columns, click on his name, just under his picture up top . . . He can be e-mailed at: don@dontrushmedon.com
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