Adults falling for gymnastics

Classes: A Columbia program attracts older students hoping for total body awareness or for a chance to fly like Superman.

Howard At Play

April 06, 2003|By Nancy Menefee Jackson | Nancy Menefee Jackson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Names such as "Tumbling Tykes and "Mighty Minis" reinforce the perception that gymnastics is a sport for the young.

Even at Olympic levels, the sport seems dominated by tiny young women and fresh-faced young men who hardly seem old enough to stay up late for the ceremonies. It makes sense, however. A certain flexibility and fearlessness are inherent in the young, and those same characteristics are needed in a gymnast.

But plenty of adults love the sport, too, and being old enough to stay up late doesn't mean you can't do gymnastics.

In fact, a program at Columbia Gymnastics caters to adults. Five years ago, it began with three people, said program director Phillip Mandalou, "and it has snowballed to 15 adults who come on a regular basis.

Two are former competitive gymnasts, but most are finally trying a sport that intrigues them.

"I'd never taken gymnastics or had any gymnastic experience," said Max Rubin, 27, of Laurel, who started at Columbia Gymnastics a year ago. Rubin, who mountain bikes, runs and lifts weights, was looking for something to increase his overall athleticism and flexibility.

"I'd always admired gymnasts. I thought they were the epitome of fitness," he said. "I was looking for something that would not be isolating - weights isolate muscle groups, but in gymnastics the whole body works in concert."

He quickly found that he loved vaulting - taking a running start at a box and using it for leverage, flying over it.

"I like the vault, because as adults we rarely get that liberating feeling of flying through the air like Superman," he said.

Rubin is quick to add, though, that he vaults into a pit full of foam. He doesn't try to stick the landing on mats the way competitive gymnasts do.

I've never landed any of these things on a real surface," he said "That is more risk than I'm looking to get into. I'd rather be able to, with complete abandon, attack the vault."

One adult who does regularly fly through the air is Tomlinson "Tom" Rauscher, 56, of Ellicott City, who works now at gymnastics to complement his favorite sporting event, the pole vault - which is not considered gymnastics but uses some of the same body-control techniques.

He competes in master's and senior track and field events, but as a kid, he said, he never lived in a place that had gymnastics.

He has been at the sport for a decade now and said of the experience: "Gymnastics is good training for body awareness. It's a lot of fun going out and being on the trampoline."

But he laughed, noting that "as one of my colleagues says, I can still get my butt up over my head."

Asked if he worried about injuries, he pointed out that gymnastics has increased his flexibility and added: "You have to have a little bit of fear, or else you're crazy."

"I will make sure they explore the risk factor," said Mandalou, who coaches the adults. "They have to know their limitations. Kids have much more pliable bodies. They make a mistake, and they jump back up. Adults who get hurt take a long time to recover."

In fact, the insurance costs involved in adult programs mean that only larger clubs can afford them.

Mandalou is careful to tailor the instruction to each participant.

"They can learn as much or as little as they want," he said of the 90-minute sessions on Monday evenings.

For those adults who have competed, he said, the attraction is knowing "that you can still enjoy your passion and not look like a fool: You're in a class with adults taught by adults, and they have the gym to themselves."

Melanie Taylor, 26, of Columbia was involved with gymnastics on and off while growing up and competed in high school for a year and a half.

"I'd always absolutely loved gymnastics, whether I got to do it a lot or whether I was good at it," she said. The $50 a month for the weekly classes seemed like a bargain to her.

Now, after two years, she feels her body finally has a chance to learn, because she is working consistently at the sport.

Her favorite apparatus is the uneven parallel bars. But she practices her dismounts from a bar over the foam-filled pits before attempting them on mats.

And she has noted one other difference, working out as an adult: "I'm more sore the next day than I was in high school."

But she still loves the sport, she said, and finds it a good stress release.

"You have to be so focused on what you're doing, everything else drops away," she said.

Rauscher, president of Digi-Data Corp., spoke with much more experience: "I do it because I enjoy it. Keeping active is really a part of overall fitness, both mental and physical. I see people my age overweight and having heart attacks. [Gymnastics] is a great complement to a digital job.

" If you don't use it, you lose it - especially for people over 50."

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