BROOKSVILLE — "Hi, this is Top Contenders Gymnastics Academy, where your children's dreams really do come true."
For 30 years, that wasn't just how the phone was answered at Top Contenders; it was the mantra for Beth Strazzullo's business.
When Strazzullo began teaching gymnastics in conjunction with the Hernando County Recreation Department more than three decades ago, she had no idea how quickly things would change. She fell in love with the sport, and enjoyed the pride that poured from her students' faces when they accomplished their goals. That pushed her to open her own gym.
At the time, Hernando County was nowhere near as developed as it is today. There wasn't a suitable building for a gym, so Strazzullo decided to open a facility in Pasco County.
From there, Top Contenders flourished. Gymnasts such as Alexis Fyock, Bianca Nemes, Joyce Spisito, and Emily Brown helped put the small gym on the map with individual national championships. Fyock began as a 3-year-old in the program 25 years ago and went on to win multiple national titles, while Brown was the latest national champion for the academy in 2007.
Thoughts about the past bring tears to Strazzullo's eyes as she remembers the reasons why she continues to devote herself to Top Contenders. With more than 15,000 students who have walked through her doors, there is no shortage of memories.
"These kids made the dream that was Top Contenders come true," Strazzullo said. "After 30-plus years, it's all about these kids that I've taught."
Along with her business partner and daughter, Ally Strazzullo, Beth Strazzullo made a decision to move the gymnasium back to Hernando County two years ago. At first, the move seemed simple enough. The academy was supposed to be closed for only 10 days. But 10 days turned into two years as renovations got caught up in government red tape.
Thanks to some help from a fellow gym owner in Tampa, Strazzullo didn't lose all of her students. But many families moved on. Lightning City Gymnastics owner Tim Keckler offered to let Beth train free of charge temporarily while her new facility was being finished.
"When Tim heard my dilemma, he said we could train there for absolutely nothing," Strazzullo said. "After a while, he said we were like part of the woodwork."
While many gymnasts moved to different academies, 18 families stayed the course with Strazzullo. In fact, three girls placed at the 2008 USA Gymnastics State Championships. Sidney Jesse (Level 3), Molly Hanley (beginner-optional) and Katherine Jones (beginner-optional) all placed in their divisions.
One parent said he was glad Strazzullo stayed the course.
"It's just me and my daughter. I'm a single dad," said Jay Jones, Katherine's father. "Beth's a really good coach. I did a lot of research, and to get a coach equal to her, you have to go over to Orlando or Miami or leave the state."
On Oct. 1, the new Hernando County gymnasium was opened.
Strazzullo, who has designed five separate gymnasiums herself, believes this is her best effort. The new Top Contenders includes a pro shop, a large parent area and a staff of seven coaches. Everyone involved is especially proud of the cleanliness of the facility, located on the south side of Spring Hill Drive, east of California Street.
Since reopening, Top Contenders has enrolled 100 new students, arranged with the Hernando County Foster Parent Association to teach 10 to 20 kids per week, and continues to supply scholarships with the help of businesses such as Beef O'Brady's on Forest Oaks Boulevard and the Fraternal Order of the Eagles in Hudson.
Strazzullo also has started to do something she hasn't done in a while. She has begun to teach the class for 3- and 4-year-old beginning gymnasts.
She loves every minute of it, and has no plans of slowing down.
"I am breathing hard and hyperventilating at the end of every class," she said. "But I got my second wind. We're nowhere near done yet."