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On the floor, the girls sat down and stretched their legs far out to the sides. Like a series of waves, they pitched forward and touched their chests to the floor. After repeating and holding this stretch, the girls brought their legs together and stretched forward again in pike position, chests pressed against knees. With every stretch, their limbs extended farther, their muscles stretched taut, their toes pointed hard. All the while, the girls chatted as though they were lounging on the couch at home.

Toward the back of the group, a dark-haired girl turned and whispered something to the girl beside her. Had the dark-haired girl looked up, she would have seen her name, Tiffany Davis, written in large letters on the gym wall underneath the title “2002 Nationals.” When Tiffany stood to pair up with a partner for the next series of stretches, she adjusted her dark purple leotard and rolled down the waistband of her black stretch capris. She wore her long hair pulled back tight in a bun. At 13, Tiffany’s slightly exotic features and almond eyes gave her an almost feline look, like a Siamese cat with a secret.

The warm-up continued. The girls lined up in two rows at one end of the floor. Still moving to the music, the girls performed an unbroken line of cartwheels from one end of the floor to the other. Two coaches, Chrissy and Stephanie, moved beside the rows. Her red hair pulled back in a long ponytail, Chrissy asked, “Samantha, is that the correct body position?” When Samantha looked up sheepishly, Chrissy added, “You might want to fix that.”

Round offs, then back and front walkovers followed the cartwheels. Each time a girl landed hard, feet together, the springy floor echoed like a big drum. The girls held still and absorbed the shock wave that radiated up through feet, calves, knees, and thighs. After a few more tumbling passes, the girls walked across the floor on their toes. With each step, their legs kicked up straight from their hips. “Aggressively kick your leg up,” Stephanie said. “Aggressively.” Stephanie, who is married to Nick, carried their baby daughter Gabrielle on her hip.

At 6:10, the music stopped. Nick set down his binder and called from in front of the lockers, “Form up.” The girls trotted over to where Nick stood and formed three rows. Shortest girls stood in front. Taller girls stood in back. Walking around behind, Stephanie surveyed the crooked rows from the side. “Fix those lines,” she said.

The girls straightened the rows and looked at Nick. Nick looked back with the air of a general about to issue command assignments. “First of all, Jill and Jessica have returned.” The girls turned to look at two older girls in the back row. “They’re home from college for the summer. Welcome back.” Nick applauded. The girls applauded. “Talk to them. You can learn from them.” Nick paused. “Page two. Schedule changes. We’ve been listening to your parents. We’re trying to get you out earlier.” Nick outlined some changes in the workout schedule.

“There’ll be a handout detailing the schedule changes,” Nick continued. He ran through a few more administrative items. “That’s all for now. Pay attention to every turn,” he admonished. “Pay attention to every strength. Those cheating on strength won’t have the kind of season they want to. Those who aren’t cheating will.”

Nick released the girls. They moved behind him to the lockers and sipped water from bottles. A few greeted Jessica and Jill. After 45 minutes, Sarah and Tiffany’s workout had just begun.

Although relatively new in the United States, gymnastics has a long history in the ancient world and in Europe. Had Sarah and Tiffany lived in Crete during the second millennium B.C., they might have practiced bull leaping. According to Encarta, Microsoft’s online encyclopedia, “In bull leaping, the performer would run toward a charging bull, grab its horns, and, upon being tossed into the air, execute various midair stunts before landing on the bull’s back, then dismount with a flip.” The Greeks used gymnastics both for military training and in children’s formal education.

During the 19th Century, German and Swedish immigrants brought forms of gymnastics with them to the United States. The German form emphasized defined skills, both with and without apparatus, as a way to teach strength and self-discipline. Swedish gymnasts used hoops, small balls, and clubs to perform rhythmic routines. By the turn of the century, American schools had adopted a compromise between the German and Swedish forms.

In 1972, a Soviet gymnast, Olga Korbut, won three gold medals at the Munich summer Olympics. Millions of Americans watched on TV. Nick described his introduction to gymnastics. “Watching the Olympics in 1972, I saw Olga Korbut. I fell in love with her,” Nick said. “Now, remember, that’s back when we were afraid of the Russians. And here’s this Russian who’s doing beautiful stuff on beam, smiling. And then when something didn’t go her way, she cried. I thought, ‘That’s not the image we have of the Soviet Union. The Soviet people are gruff. They don’t show emotion.’ If gymnastics could take a young lady and have her melt the opinions of the West, that was something I wanted to be involved with.”

Nick wasn’t alone. During the mid-1960s, USA Gymnastics (USAG), the governing body for gymnastics in the United States, listed 7000 member athletes. Today, the organization counts 71,000 athletes and 13,000 professional and instructor members. Every year, USA Gymnastics sanctions approximately 3000 gymnastics competitions and events. Gymnasts at sanctioned competitions compete in one of three areas: artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics, or trampoline.

Artistic gymnastics most closely resemble the old German form. Women compete in four events: floor exercise, uneven parallel bars, balance beam, and vault. Rhythmic gymnastics, like the traditional Swedish form, consists of routines performed with balls, hoops, or ribbons.

In addition to training and selecting the U.S. teams for the Olympics and World Championships, USA Gymnastics sets the rules and policies for gymnastics in this country. One rule that plays out every day in the life of every competitive gymnast is the concept of levels. At Stars and Stripes, the team consists of gymnasts between level five and level ten. Below level five, gymnastics are considered Recreational. Above level ten dwell the Elites, the gymnasts you see on TV at the Olympics or World Championships. Levels five to seven are called Compulsories. Levels eight to ten are Optionals.

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