At 5:25 on an early summer afternoon, the sun still blazed outside the big metal roll-up doors at Stars and Stripes Gymnastics. Inside the San Marcos gym, coaches’ commands and the squeak of the parallel bars and the whump of athletes hitting mats caromed off the high, open warehouse walls. A line of five- and six-year-old boys and girls somersaulted down the long runway leading to the vaulting table. Their coach walked alongside chanting, “Over, over, over.” Headed in the opposite direction, a straggly line of sweaty, barefooted adolescent boys dressed in tank tops and baggy shorts followed a twentyish coach.
In the gym’s southeastern corner, a group of 15 girls sat or sprawled along the edge of a raised, square, oversized trampoline. Dressed in a dark rainbow of leotards — navy and cardinal and hunter green — the girls chatted and glanced around the gym. Some lazily stretched their toned arms and legs. In the trampoline’s center, a tiny girl with blond pigtails turned back layout flips in the slow, casual way an ordinary little girl might play hopscotch on the sidewalk. Bounce, bounce, lay-out. Bounce, bounce, lay-out. On the layout part, her arms stayed at her sides. Her head went back. The rest of her body, all straight in its powder blue leotard, followed her head in a wide arc until her feet hit the trampoline again. Bounce, bounce, lay-out.
Across the runway from the trampoline, behind a series of picture windows, parents milled about in the waiting room. A large fan pushed hot air around the brown metal folding chairs and the moms in jeans and T-shirts. A few dads paged through magazines. Some siblings worked on homework or played Gameboys.
At 5:30, the waiting-room door opened. The five- and six-year-olds and a class of even younger kids filed from the gym into the stuffy room. They held up their hands to show their parents the hand stamps they’d received from their coaches. In the midst of the shuffle of parents gathering kids and gear, Christine and Sarah Bennett arrived. Sarah smiled a wide, self-conscious smile. With her brown hair pulled to the sides in two braids, her long, tanned arms and legs, and her lime green leotard, Sarah fidgeted beside her mother with a sort of preadolescent coltishness. “Go on,” Christine Bennett told her daughter. “I’ll stick around for a while. Then I’ll pick you up after practice.”
Sarah walked through the open waiting-room door and joined the group of girls by the trampoline. Greeting a friend, Sarah looked like a young Meg Ryan: wry mouth, pixie nose, wise eyes. Out in the gym, the air moved across the wide space between the opposing sets of metal doors. “They’ll start with their warm-up,” Christine explained.
As if on cue, the little blond girl stopped bouncing. The girls on the trampoline’s edge jumped down and started running in broad circles around the floor exercise area in the gym’s center. Their long, bare legs and pointed toes made the girls look like a flock of graceful cranes. “This is the competitive group,” Christine continued. “There are 17 girls. The littlest one is Jamie.” Christine pointed to a dark-haired girl even smaller than the blonde who’d done the flips. “She’s eight. I think the oldest one is Ariane. She’s leaving for college in the fall.”
Christine motioned toward a group of coaches who stood at the edge of the floor in front of a bank of lockers. “There are seven coaches,” she said. “They all coach all the events. Some specialize in certain events. You’ll see Nick,” Christine said and pointed to a fit, short man in khaki shorts and a polo-type shirt. Nick Chaimson (pronounced like Jameson with a ch) peered through his glasses at the open pages of a black binder. “Nick’s the head coach. He’ll give the girls a pep talk before and after practice.” At Stars and Stripes, everyone referred to Chaimson as Nick. No one called him Coach Chaimson as they might have were he coaching football or baseball. In fact, all the gymnastics coaches used their first names only.
A leotard-wearing girl with her ankle wrapped in an Ace bandage hobbled on crutches toward the floor exercise area. “The girls come even when they’re injured,” Christine said. “If their leg is hurt, they’ll work upper body. If their arm is hurt, they’ll do extra leg work.”
The girls stopped running and lined up three deep in front of the mirror that covered the center of the gym’s southern wall. The girl on crutches joined them. As calypso music blared out of wall speakers, the girls began moving in unison. Late afternoon sun crept through the western doors. “The warm-up routine is set,” Christine said. “They do the same one every day. It’s a dance that stretches out all the muscles. The girls take turns leading the routine.” Standing in the center at the group’s front, little Jamie kicked her left leg forward and back to the music. The group followed suit. Jamie hopped up and down with her toes pointed hard. A sea of heads bobbed before her.
The images reflected in the giant mirror encompassed a full range of ages and heights and sizes. In addition to Jamie, the group included Sarah, nine, and McKenna, also nine. Shorter than Sarah, McKenna already had the narrow hips and defined, triangulated upper body of the gymnasts you see on TV. At the opposite end, tall, willowy, redheaded Rebecca towered above the group. One of the littler girls had a tiny torso and long, spiderlike limbs. A few of the older girls looked like women, with rounded hips and breasts and powerful thighs.
The calypso music lilted. The girls jumped higher. Each held her arms out to the side, legs spread in an inverted V. Sarah’s green leotard flashed amid the group. “Sarah had her sixth birthday party here,” Christine said. In addition to teaching classes and sponsoring the team, Stars and Stripes hosts birthday parties. “I feel like we haven’t left since.” Christine laughed. “She decided she wanted to take a class. So we started out with one class a week. Then we kept coming and coming. We added a day. The system is set up on tracks, like school. First, Sarah was a Mini-Star. Then she was a Super Star. Then she got recommended for the team. In the time we’ve been here, we’ve gone from 1 hour a week to 14 hours a week.” Sarah, who attends fifth grade at a San Marcos elementary school, practices at the gym from 5:30 to 9:00 on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday evenings and from 8:00 to 11:30 on Saturday mornings.