Young gymnasts take off to new heights at Island Gym

  • Wed Mar 7th, 2007 6:00pm
  • Sports

The Island Dance Gymnastics team get ready to rock: Lillianna Stelling

When Debbie Wilkie walked into the Island Dance studio last week, there was a moment of uncertainty.

The large room, set up for the Island Dance Gymnastic team, was dark and Coach Wilkie wondered where her students might be.

Suddenly the lights went on and 10 young girls in black and red leotards, age 8 to 12, were wishing Wilkie a happy birthday.

Not wanting to waste precious practice time on a frivolous pursuit, within a minute the girls were on the bouncy, spring-loaded floor beginning their exercise warm-up routines, working out the kinks and loosening muscles after a long day in the classroom.

As a disco beat swelled in the background the girls, Wilkie and assistant coach Ann Votava got to work.

But the cramped space made it difficult. The gym is only 40-feet long — 72 feet is the norm — and the girls had to move their equipment around several times during a single practice to accommodate the different disciplines, including the beam, bars, floor and vault. The high beam is located in a smaller former storage room.

“We need more room, as you see,” Wilkie said. “The team does the most they can with what they have.”

And that’s a lot. With the program only three years old, five girls have qualified for sectionals in Mountlake Terrace in April; Lilly Kaiser Schmidt, Tess Radisch, Melissa Smith, Lillianna Stelling and Madison Tisa-Mcphee. Wilkie expects more to follow.

The gymnastics season runs from January to May and comprises six meets in all. The girls practice hard for two hours twice a week and they seem to like it.

Lilly strives to go “beyond the better and up to the best,” while Tess believes that “working out every week makes me stronger.”

Madison has no problem performing before an audience.

“I zone out all the noise during meets, except the cheers from my parents,” she said.

Melissa enjoys the traveling aspect. “Meeting lots of fun, interesting people, judges and members of other teams is great.”

And Lilliana said she enjoys polishing her skills in all four events. “Moving on up to the top levels is where I’m headed,” she noted solemnly.

There are 10 levels, each one tougher and requiring specific degrees of form, difficulty and composition in the routines. The team is now at level 4.

“My goal is to grow the program to level 10,” the coach said. “But in order to get to the higher levels, we’ll need more and better equipment and a bigger space.”

Wilkie has been in the gym most of her life, competing from the age of 3 until, at 17, an injury forced her into coaching.

In 1988 she was invited to coach at a developmental camp at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. and she was a guest coach at the annual UCLA Gymnastics Camp.

From 1992 to 1996 she coached at several strong gymnastic organizations and built up a high school team that was successful at the state level; some of her athletes won scholarships to university. From 1992 through 1995 she helped build a YMCA program in her hometown of Longview.

Charlene Brown, co-owner of Island Dance, was pleased when Wilkie came on board.

“There’s a synergy between dance and gymnastics,” she said. “Debbie wants to build the program to a whole new recreational and competitive level. Island Dance gymnastics is focused on a curriculum she has created herself with her unique knowledge of the sport. And the lessons she teaches will help to positively influence the future for all her students.”

Meanwhile, the girls have settled into a round-robin exercise routine, their high-impact energy level in clear view as they twirled around the high bar, somersaulted in floor routines, vaulted through the air and maneuvered delicately on the beam.

“This is a sport, not an art,” Wilkie pointed out.

Jeff VanDerford can be reached at 221-5300 or sports@southwhidbeyrecord.com.