By David Markham
Despite a crazy year when practices were cancelled for months and staff had to find new ways to offer training, Recreation Coordinator and Kansas Kips Gymnastics Team Head Coach Alexis Kelford says the Kansas Kips Gymnastics Team has emerged stronger than ever. As evidence, she points to impressive wins the team recently brought back from a State Gymnastics Championship in Wichita.
“We knew they had the capability to have a strong showing at the state meet if they went out and hit their routines,” Kelford said. “Three of our gymnasts peaked at the right time and had their highest all-around scores of the year at the state meet, which was incredible. Having three athletes finish in the top three all-around in their respective level was a tremendous accomplishment, both as individuals and as a team, especially considering the small size of our competitive program.”
The March 29 competition was the first state meet for half of the Kips team with six of the eight members having their best all-around scores. The Kips have team members in Levels 3 through 6 and ages ranging from eight to 13.
Eleven-year-old Zohey S. of Shawnee, who has been participating in gymnastics since she was four, took first place at the Wichita championship, not only in her age group, but was the top scorer amongst all Level 5 competitors
“I like that hard work pays off,” she said. “We practice four days a week, and two and a half hours at a time (520 hours a year). It was so worth it. I enjoy that the more you do it, the more you learn. It has helped me in other sports too.”
Zohey’s future goals include “having a good mindset,” advancing to Level 7, being a good leader, and getting a higher score at each meet.
Earlier this season, Zohey took all-around first place at the Chalk Up Invitational, second all-around at the Super Bowl Invitational, first all-around at the Diamond Invitational, and third all-around at the Pinnancle Pacer. While previously competing at Level 4, she placed first on floor and first in the all-around at the state championship.
“I wasn’t surprised or shocked that Zohey took first place at the state championships because I know what she is capable of when she puts her mind to it,” Kelford said. “What I am most proud of is that Zohey had the highest all-around score as a Level 5 not only in her age division but EVERY age division in the state of Kansas!”
Other members of the team, all of whom reside in Shawnee, had impressive accomplishments at the state championship as well. Claire E., 11, was an individual state champion on the floor and placed third all-around champion in her first year as a Level 5. Quinn G., 9, set a personal record by almost three full points, earning her third place all-around at her first state meet as a Level 3 gymnast.
Other team members include: Level 4 gymnasts Ava G., 12, and Josie D., 12; and Level 3 gymnasts Evelynn T., 8, Eleanor E., 11, and Jadyn S., 9.
Before getting to March’s state championship, Kips team members endured a lot in the past year because of the pandemic. The team lost nearly a quarter of their training year due to COVID; many competitive meets were cancelled during the pandemic leaving the girls with few competitive opportunities to test their skills; members trained virtually with their coaches to stay active; when the coaches were furloughed, the older teammates lead the younger members several times a week to stay connected; parents were very supportive, building balance beams and even a set of bars so the girls could train at home; and when they could practice again, they had to do so in masks.
“I think the biggest lesson our gymnasts took away from 2020 was the importance of being flexible,” added Gymnastics Coordinator Kendra Martiny. “Obviously, literal flexibility is such an integral part of the sport of gymnastics, but the need to be flexible really took on a metaphorical meaning in the past year as policies and schedules continued to change on a moment’s notice. They had to pivot from in-person practices, to virtual practices via Zoom, to independently-led workouts when their coaches were furloughed. It was truly inspiring to see such young athletes handle every new change with so much grace.”
Martiny also noted the extra efforts made by her staff as well.
“We went from nine part-time instructors in early March of 2020 to three returning from furlough by August,” she said. “So everyone who elected to come back really stepped up to the plate and took on new and additional responsibilities, such as teaching their classes independently, as opposed to co-teaching. Although the way we’ve taught classes has changed, our staff still provide a positive, encouraging, and fun environment to learn and fall in love with the sport of gymnastics, and that has really been what’s kept participants on track and coming back week after week.”
Coach Kelford says the gymnastics program has “completely transformed” over the past year, with big changes like livestreaming all class programs via Facebook, and implementation of new ongoing monthly payment system, but the thing she is most proud of is how the program has been able to bring a sense of normalcy for many participating children.
“While the world was evolving and changing everyday, I feel we were a ‘safe space’ for many – a place they could come and just be a kid,” she said. “It was an activity they could look forward to and rely on every week. Greeting my students before every class with a huge smile under my mask was something I even looked forward to. I am proud that JCPRD Gymnastics gave children an outlet. And I am so grateful for our loyal patrons who love and trust our agency during such a crummy year. If there is any silver lining, I truly believe our program is better than ever before because of COVID-19!”
As to future goals for the Kips, Kelford said while she loves how small and tight-knit the team is, she hopes to see it grow over the next few years.
“For the first time in a couple of years, we will have a few optional level gymnasts (Level 6 or above) in the upcoming season,” she said. “I would love to see numerous Kansas Kips take home the state champ crown for the 2021-2022 season.”
JCPRD offers gymnastics programming for children of all ages and skill levels. Some of the classes offered include preschool, tumbling, recreational Levels 1 through 3 for boys, and a recently-added ninja program! In addition to classes, various skill clinics, camps, and private lessons are available.
“I wish people knew about the full breadth of our program; we really do have something for just about any kiddo,” said Martiny. “Participants can start as young as 18 months old, and we have everything from gymnastics classes for both boys and girls to ninja and tumbling classes, skill clinics, seasonal camps, and even birthday parties.”
“We also offer a free trial or testing program for families who do not know what class to place their child in,” Kelford added. “This is something we already offer and are going to begin advertising in the coming weeks. Participants begin in a Level 1 (beginner) class. Once their instructor feels they are ready to advance to a more difficult class the child receives a certificate of completion and will be placed in Level 2. We have quite a few participants in Level 2 or Level 3 classes who attend class as many as four times a week.”