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Youths get to act like Olympians

Eric Egner moved from one event to another, advancing from the discus throw to a floor hockey exhibition.

"I'm good at hockey; playing goalie. But sometimes I play that," said the 7-year-old from Port Richey, pointing to a boy taking a shot on net.

Like more than 100 boys and girls, ages 3-14, Egner took part in the first mini-Olympics at Suncoast Gymnastics Academy Saturday. The kids rotated around the gym in 10 events, with every participant earning a ribbon.

"I think it's wonderful," said Nikki Albert as her 5-year-old daughter, Kristyn, walked along the balance beam. "The kids are having a ball."

"This is just for fun; for the community," said Arnold Gwinn, owner and head trainer at Suncoast Gymnastics. "We're trying to pump them up for the Olympics."

Among the stations were the balance beam, rings, uneven bars, tennis and baseball. But the most popular event was diving. Children ran down a runway, jumped off a springboard and into a pit filled with foam blocks.

"They just love the pit," said Gwinn's wife, Cindy, the gym's co-owner who choreographed the opening ceremonies.

Girls and boys ran around the gym, handing off an orange-colored paper torch, and Jim Millns, a bronze-medalist ice dancer in the 1976 Winter Olympics at Innisbruk, made a special appearance.

Then, 3-year-olds Caitlin Ramirez, Megan Kondilas, Parise Reynolds, Becky Reynolds and Julie Eynard performed a dance routine. Two of the gyms' top contenders, Jamie Burnette and Rachel Rose, presented a rhythmic gymnastics exhibition before the games got under way.

In keeping with the Gwinns' emphasis on safety, a spotter was stationed at every event. Cindy Gwinn's mother, Cindy Mazei, even pitched in by tossing plastic balls to batters in the baseball event.

Arnold Gwinn spotted jumpers at the in-ground trampoline, which prevents boys and girls from falling down.

"It's nice and safe," he said. "When they come off the tramp, they're right at floor-level."

Egner's mother, Arlene Heppard, said the safety factor was a primary reason she enrolled Eric, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, at the academy.

"Gymnastics is a way for him to let out all of that hyperactivity and have a good time and not hurt himself or anybody else," Heppard said. "I knew I had to get him into something that was safe and that he'd like. It's a great outlet for him."

The Gwinns estimated that half the kids who came to the gym Saturday were newcomers. While many of those youngsters moved around from station to station, several of the academy's regular students showed off in their favorite events. Like Alaxandra Ramos, 12, who had a perfect landing in a sole-circle dismount from the uneven bars.

As for future Olympians, at least one girl could follow in Millns' skates _ er, footsteps. Although Amanda Carr, 11, has taken gymnastics at the academy for the past three years, she also works on her ice dancing at Sunblades Ice Arena and at the ice rink in Countryside Mall.

"It would be good to be in the Olympics," said Carr, of New Port Richey.