Tumbling, balancing and flipping not only are good ways to get in shape but also are entertaining ways to spend weekday afternoons, say members of the only gymnastics team in Kansas that isn't sponsored by a private club or an elementary or secondary school.
"I like it 'cause it's fun," said Erin Hickey, 9, Lawrence, a gymnast for three years and a member of the program, the Kansas School of Gymnastics.
She and other members of the team were interviewed during a recent practice session at Kansas University's Robinson Center.
Through the Kansas School of Gymnastics, which began about six years ago, participants may take gymnastics classes and participate on competitive, not-for-profit local teams. Kansas University and the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department jointly administer the program.
"I've been very pleased with it," said Bob Lockwood, a KU physical education instructor and organizer of the local program. "I think we have one of the premier facilities in the state."
Lockwood was referring to the gymnastics facility in Robinson, which features several balance beams, a large trampoline and a floor mat for tumbling.
ABOUT 600 children take gymnastics classes at Robinson through the program, Lockwood said.
Fees for the classes help pay the salaries of 28 KU students who have been hired to teach the eight-week classes and coach the teams.
The gymnastics school fields two teams that compete in area and state tournaments each weekend.
About 18 boys and 15 girls ages 9 to 16 are members of this year's teams. Their competition season runs from October to June for boys and from December through March for girls.
Eric Hockersmith, a KU graduate student who coaches the boys' team, said gymnastics was one of the best ways for young children to gain physical strength, coordination and flexibility.
"The little kids develop their coordination and strength faster than they would in any other sport," he said. "The people you want to get into gymnastics is little kids because it's like Romper Room to them."
HOCKERSMITH said older children also benefit from cardiovascular and muscle-strengthening aspects.
Boys participate in six competitive events: floor exercises, pommel horse, rings, vault, parallel bars and the high bar.
Girls take part in four events: floor exercises, balance beam, uneven bars and vault.
"It's not completely aerobic," said Amy Taranto, a KU senior and girls' team coach. "They concentrate more on power than on stamina."
Taranto and Connie Stutz, the other girls' coach, have posted written routines that the girls follow during practices, which are held for boys and girls two hours each night Mondays through Thursdays, as well as two hours on Saturdays.
Practices, which are held year-round, usually consist of basic routines in each event and calisthenics.
"They may be small, but they're mighty," Stutz said of the gymnasts.
ANNA DREWRY, 12, who has been on the team about five years, said the hardest part of practice was the combined exercises and routines.
"All of it just adds up," she said.
Anna said her favorite event was the floor exercise because "you get to do it to music."
One of the older members on the boy's team, Eric Carlson, a 16-year-old Lawrence High School student, said he didn't get harassed by other students for being active in gymnastics.
The gymnastics stereotype, he says, is changing.
"When they find out I can do twice as many . . . pull-ups, I don't hear it (hassling) too much," he said.
Lockwood said that currently, there were no private gymnastics schools in Lawrence.
Lareeda Hickey, mother of team member Erin, said booster clubs recently were established for both the girls' and boys' teams to help pay competition expenses. Lockwood and Hickey said all other teams in the state are funded through private, for-profit clubs.
The Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department currently is holding walk-in registration for the winter session of eight-week gymnastics classes, which begin Monday.
For more information, contact the South Park Recreation Center, 1141 Mass., at 841-7777.