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Olympian now a passionate kids' gymnastics coach

Gymnastics coach Chelle Stack can name almost every Interstate 4 landmark between Orlando and Brandon.

Fantasy of Flight, the Water Ski Hall of Fame, the three oddly colored blades of grass near Lakeland.

Okay, maybe I'm stretching it on the blades of grass, but the drive's sights and sounds have become familiar to Stack. Since March, she has made the trip — along with her 2 1/2 pound dog Cocoa — from her Orlando home to the Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center three times a week.

The trips take a fair amount of petrol, but it's passion — not gas — fueling Stack's commute.

For 32 of her 35 years, she has balanced her life around gymnastics. The 3-year-old tumbler from Houston eventually blossomed into a world-class gymnast and 1988 U.S. Olympian.

It took a controversial rules violation to keep Stack and her American teammates from capturing a surprising bronze medal in Seoul, but the experience of being one of the nation's seven best left her with a lifelong love of the sport.

That love, and an unwavering belief she can coax elite performances out of local gymnasts, brought Stack to the 44-year-old sports facility. The center has produced Olympic champions and elite athletes in swimming, diving and tennis. Stack longs to replicate that success in gymnastics.

"The children that are here are really, really talented kids," Stack said Monday before one of her classes. "They have the natural talent. We just have to spend a little more time. It's like getting a diamond out of the rough. They've got the makings, we just have to make them shine."

Stack can ask her young charges to take on challenges because she's done it and she's doing it. Although she has maintained a successful program in Winter Park, she didn't back away from expanding her efforts to Brandon. Now she's at her Winter Park facility Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday and in Brandon Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

The difficulties of maintaining two facilities may seem daunting, but to Stack it simply reflects the work ethic that helped propel her to the top of the sport.

"I think any athlete that reaches that high level ... whenever you're presented with a new challenge, you're like, 'Of course, I can take that on,' " Stack said. "I love the sport. I love the competition. There's a time when you have to go from performing to teaching the kids and trying to give them the passion that I find in the sport."

Stack's passion not only led to Olympic success, but she twice placed first in the uneven bars at the U.S. National Championships working primarily with famed coaches Bela and Marta Karolyi.

She also earned a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma and eventually came to Florida to perform with Cirque du Soleil at Walt Disney World.

Having coached since she was 16, she moved into that area full time after four years with Cirque. She went on to purchase her own gym and is now extending to Brandon.

The key to bringing success to the Brandon group, Stack said, will come from getting to know them individually.

"You have to find that special little key that makes each kid tick," Stack said. "Some kids work better one-on-one, some kids work better in a group. Some kids work better if you really coddle them, some kids if you're really tough. It really just depends on how much you care and how much you're giving to them.

"As long as you're putting them in an environment where they're enjoying what they're doing, they'll give you so much more than you're able to probably give them."

Stack's presence reflects the nonprofit center's commitment to excellence, executive director Chuck Burgess said. Now, more than ever, Brandon Sports and Aquatic wants to not only be in the community, but be a part of it.

On May 30, it'll host a Casino Night as it continues to make improvements. The event will include a variety of Vegas-style games.

However, adding Stack doesn't seem to be a gamble at all.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at hooper@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3406.

if you go

Brandon Sports and Aquatic Center Casino Night

When/where: May 30 at 405 Beverly Blvd., Brandon

Tickets: $35 individual & $60 couple (in advance); $45 individual & $75 couple (at the door)

Attire: Business casual

Olympian now a passionate kids' gymnastics coach 05/21/09 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:41pm]

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