Soho locals host high-level gymnastics meet


By Skye H. McFarlane

Every few minutes, he squirted wetting drops into a pair of ice blue eyes to ward off the dry gymnasium air. The drops couldn’t quite clear the glaze of exhaustion, but NYC Elite gymnastics coach Randy Nebel still had a smile on his face. He may not have been getting much sleep, but Nebel described NYC Elite’s Manhattan Classic meet as “the dream of the dream.”

Started in 2003 and held at Pace University, the Manhattan Classic began as a way to realize Elite’s hopes of hosting a major club gymnastics competition in the Big Apple while simultaneously bringing business to Lower Manhattan in the wake of 9/11. On Jan. 26, as NYC Elite kicked off the fifth annual Classic, Nebel wasn’t the only Elite member rubbing his eyes. Though the meet attracts more than 700 of the nation’s most talented young tumblers, it still runs on the elbow grease of Elite’s gymnasts, coaches and parents.

In addition to preparing their own routines for the meet, which featured teams from 18 states and served as a qualifier for the New York State Championships, the Elite crew doubled as banner decorators, equipment movers, meet timers and ticket takers. Only the security guards and judges at the meet were hired from outside the Elite family. The sleeplessness began Wednesday night, Jan. 24, when a cadre of coaches, owners and parents worked until past sunrise carrying several tons of rented mats and equipment, piece by piece, down three flights of stairs and into the Pace gym. Then came set up, and decorating — including awards podia in the shape of skyscrapers and taxi cabs — followed by a final practice at the Elite gym that lasted late into the night on Thursday.

The owners of the deli and art gallery that once occupied the ground floor of the building at the corner of Sixth Ave. and Watts St. probably never imagined that their cavernous spaces would someday be filled by a maze of blue and red mats, trampolines, a landing pit of foam-rubber blocks and the apparati of womens gymnastics — uneven bars, vaults, balance beams and a spring-loaded tumbling floor.

NYC Elite came into being in 2001 when staffers of the Chelsea Piers gymnastics program, including Nebel, decided to split off and form their own gym. Over the years, Elite, which offers recreational classes in addition to its competitive “Starz” club program, has attracted a growing stable of young gymnasts — both new recruits and tumblers who have moved over from other gyms in the city.

Many of the girls were attracted to Elite because of experienced coaches like Nebel, a former member of the U.S. Power Tumbling team who coached at Illinois State before becoming the head coach at Chelsea Piers. Last year, after a lease-violation lawsuit forced another Downtown gym, Sutton Gymnastics, to close, Sutton coach Jack Smith joined the Elite team, bringing with him several of Sutton’s athletes.

The Sutton additions brought even more diversity to an already unique gym. The competitive gymnastics stereotype is one of blonde, privately tutored, pixie-sized athletes, but Elite’s Starz come in every color and economic class. Several of the Elite girls — including a few gymnasts who once utilized a Sutton scholarship program for low-income families — come from middle or working-class homes. The families collaborate on transportation, supervision and even tuition, helping one another out so that each girl can afford the $450 per month gym bill (not including the cost of flights and tournament fees). The gym, they say, works with them, allowing parents to volunteer for the gym in exchange for offsetting some of the fees.

“I don’t mind it. None of the parents mind it,” said Byron Maynard of his unofficial second job as an Elite gym volunteer.

The devotion of Byron and other parents to the Elite team appears to go far beyond a sense of obligation. In addition to participating in the equipment-moving marathon, Byron spent three straight days helping out at the Manhattan Classic and cheering for Elite’s 50-girl squad. Byron has also taken on the role of a one-man public relations team for Elite, notifying the media and local government officials about the Classic.

Byron lights up when he speaks about the club, but never as much as when he talks about his granddaughter, Nija Maynard. A gymnast since the age of eight, Nija joined the Elite squad a year and a half ago. Now a high school junior, she hopes to continue tumbling in college and major in athletic training or sports medicine. Nija lives with her grandfather in Greenwich Village so that she can attend Millennium High School in the Financial District. Byron takes vacation days from his job at a software company so that he can attend as many of Nija’s meets as possible — “Thank god for Jet Blue,” he says.

“Here everybody is your sister, from the littlest gymnast on up. It’s like a family,” said Nija at the Manhattan Classic. Two of Elite’s youngest gymnasts stood at her feet, clad in oversized meet t-shirts and carrying armfuls of Classic merchandise, which they were peddling to the crowd. Older gymnasts timed routines while more of the tiny sequined tots ran scorecards back and forth between the judges’ tables.

The Manhattan Classic marked Nija’s return to competition after a yearlong recovery from A.C.L. surgery. Though she lowered the difficulty level of her routine and competed only on the bars (the apparatus with the least amount of pounding on the knees), Nija came back with a bang. Her score of 8.73 earned her first-place honors in the Level 9 Senior division, a surprise win that had Nija wide-eyed and Byron doling out hugs to every parent he could find.

“She had her old man crying, I’ll tell you that,” Byron said.

Elite’s two Level 10 gymnasts (the highest level before gymnasts become “elite” or international-level competitors) struggled with injuries and challenging routine elements at the Classic. Nevertheless, Nebel is confident that Liz Garcia and Carolyn Colon will be in good shape for the championship meets later this spring.

“The kids hit key points in their routines…They know about the big picture — that Nationals is where we’re going to be,” Nebel said.

Beyond the spring, Elite’s competitive future looks even brighter. The gym’s younger Starz were dominant at the Classic, taking first place in the Level 4 and Level 5 team competitions, second place in the Level 6 and Level 7 team competitions and earning a host of individual event and all-around medals. Nebel, who has coached Garcia for eight years, looks forward to establishing similar long-term athletic relationships with the gym’s up-and-coming tumblers.

“Consistency is key,” he said. “You get to know your athlete. You can look them in the eye and know what they’re feeling.”