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Tampa-sponsored gymnastics: high quality, low price, booming interest

NEW TAMPA

Kristin Brown camped out for three hours, reading a book in a metal chair, to secure a place at the front of the line. It was worth it, she said. Anything for her 6-year-old twins. By 6 p.m., more than 100 other parents had joined her. But they weren't vying for Miley Cyrus concert tickets or first dibs on a big sale at Toys "R" Us. They waited Monday to enroll their children in a highly acclaimed gymnastics program run by an unlikely source: the city of Tampa.

Brown and the others registered for gymnastics summer camp at the New Tampa Recreation Center. There, more than 1,200 girls take gymnastics and dance lessons each week, and about 800 others linger on the waiting list. Some moms register their infants still in the womb.

At the city's other gymnastics gym, in Seminole Heights, more than 1,400 kids take lessons each week, with 900 names on what the city calls an "interest" list.

The centers draw kids from all over Hillsborough County, as well as Pinellas and Pasco, so long lines like those seen this week for the summer camp aren't surprising.

The program is considered one of the best in the Southeast, according to the city. Only Tallahassee and Atlanta have similarly reputable city-run gymnastics programs.

"They have state-of-the-art equipment, and the prices are low," Brown said. "You can't find anything else like it around here."

At the heart of the gymnastics program is a mission that fosters friendship, team building and sportsmanship at bargain prices.

Run by the parks and recreation department, classes start at $25 for seven weeks and build from there, depending on the number of hours of practice. Club gyms normally charge triple the amount.

Kristin Mallia, of Tampa Palms, has waited for more than a year for spots to open up for her daughters.

Cheryl Young and Cindy Petracelli signed up their five girls well before construction even began on the rec center two years ago in order to secure spots.

"It's not just gymnastics," Petracelli said. "They feel safe and they're getting fit … both mind and body. And that's important."

The New Tampa center, in Tampa Palms, is the spawn of the Seminole Heights facility, where the city's gymnastics program began. It was renovated in 2004 and renamed the Wayne C. Papy Athletic Center. Despite the expansion, the demand for gymnastics was still so great that it made sense to open a state-of-the-art gym in New Tampa, said Heather Wolf-Erickson, who handles park operations for the city's northern parks.

Wolf-Erickson started the city's gymnastics program in 1989 with 50 kids.

The New Tampa gym, opened in the summer of 2008, features a 12,500-square-foot gymnastics area, which includes a gymnastic pit, tumbling strip and other equipment used in competitive U.S. Olympic events.

In New Tampa, the greatest demand is for preschool gymnastics because parents want their children exposed to dance and gymnastics at a young age, Wolf-Erickson said. About 400 kids are enrolled in the under-5 gym and dance classes there. About 300 others are waiting to get in.

"That's the downside of being affordable and offering a quality program," Wolf-Erickson said. "The mission wasn't to be competitive. It was to put the opportunity out to the kids who may or may not have this opportunity."

Yet over the years, the city has seen its girls win medals and get college scholarships. Kids who don't want to compete, however, don't have to. Training can be for competition or recreation, Wolf-Erickson said.

Each site employs four core staffers and about 20 part-time instructors.

The mood is light and the training is fun, said Tatiana Morehouse, a freshman at Sickles High School who travels from Carrollwood five days a week for 15 hours of training. She spent years with a club gym before transferring to the New Tampa center when it opened.

"The bonds of friendships here are stronger," Tatiana said, "because it's not all about gymnastics."

It's also not all girls. A number of boys are enrolled in the preschool classes, and a handful of teenagers take tumbling classes.

Wolf-Erickson said she wishes there were more room to accommodate everyone.

"We could open the floodgates and run mediocre programming, but our mission is to offer quality instruction," she said. "I'm super proud of the kids that reach the highest levels, but I'm also super proud of the mom-and-tot classes, our summer camps, everything else we offer."

Dong-Phuong Nguyen can be reached at (813) 909-4613 or nguyen@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Two popular places

The city of Tampa says its two gymnastics facilities, in New Tampa and Seminole Heights, are among the best in the Southeast. Waiting lists are hundreds of names long. Tampa residents pay $15 a year for a city rec card before they can register for programs. Nonresidents in unincorporated Hillsborough County and beyond pay $115 per rec card. Lessons range from $25 for seven weeks to $100 a month. Because of budget cuts, an increase in programming fees is being considered.

The New Tampa Rec Center is at 17302 Commerce Park Blvd. in Tampa Palms. Call (813) 975-2794 for information.

The Wayne C. Papy Athletic Center is at 6925 N Florida Ave. in Seminole Heights. Call (813) 231-5273 for information.

Tampa-sponsored gymnastics: high quality, low price, booming interest 04/01/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 1, 2010 4:30am]
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