Tumblin’ tots roll through good times and bad

July 28, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Gymnastics East is a home away from home for children, families

Gymnastics instructor Jen Cook works with 6-year-old Miya Nakata on the balance beam at Gymnastics East, an Issaquah institution for 30 years. By Adam Eschbach

Gymnastics instructor Jen Cook works with 6-year-old Miya Nakata on the balance beam at Gymnastics East, an Issaquah institution for 30 years. By Adam Eschbach

Tumbling and flipping through good times is something Gymnastics East families are used to, but when the vaulting gets tough, they stick the landing by sticking together.

“We’re a family,” said Roberta Diles, gym co-owner, whose children began practicing there in the late 1980s.

Gymnastics East has been an Issaquah staple for 30 years, but recently reopened on Mall Street.
Their spring-loaded floors are more than a venue for learning to tumble or entering the realm of competitive gymnastics. Gymnastics East is home to generations of gymnasts who teach, participate and volunteer.

“It is a home away from home,” Diles said, adding her daughter Tamara also instructs at the gym.

“It says something about the coaches when children are coming back, and now coaching themselves,” said instructor Liesl Kersher.

What began as a little gym tucked away on Front Street North in 1979, opened by Jan Wanzer, has grown into a three-location conglomeration in Issaquah, Bellevue and Preston, owned by some of the students who studied under her.

“She brought gymnastics to the community,” Diles said. “If she thought Issaquah wanted a show, she would host it. In fact, she’d tear up the floor of Gymnastics East and put it on Front Street for Salmon Days, or she would pack it up to the Seattle Center at Christmastime so the girls could perform.”

Wanzer also teamed up with the city Parks and Recreation Department to offer classes to children interested in gymnastics.

“She always tried to involve the community in the gym. It really felt like the community had ownership of the gym,” said Missy Miller, another co-owner who has worked with the gym for 18 years and also practiced there as a teen.

Despite opening new locations, and for a time moving out of Issaquah, the gym has remained in touch with its community spirit, and families from Issaquah have remained their staple business.

“We have always been a part of this community,” said Ryan Fleisher, an office manager and former gymnast. “As much as this town has grown and changed around us, we are still like our own small town here. Everyone knows each other.”

Now, in a new soon-to-be 4,000-square-foot location, the gym’s co-owners said they couldn’t be happier to be in Issaquah.

“Every little girl wants to do a cartwheel,” said instructor Shirley Arnold. “That is what brings them here, and what keeps them here is they can grow with us.”

Arnold said she has firsthand knowledge as her daughter-turned-co-owner Kim Thomson started with the gym and has stayed her entire life. Thomson’s daughter, Melissa Thomson, will also begin teaching classes at the gym soon.

When their gymnasts go on to college or move from the gym to other programs or activities, they often phone friends and coaches at Gymnastics East when they are homesick, Thomson said, adding she gets text messages and phone calls for advice.

“I understand. It was hard for me to leave,” she said. “So, I didn’t. I came back to teach, because I wanted to give back to a family that had given me so much.”

The gym’s instructors and owners have worked to bring gymnastics to the community and debunk any myths about gymnastics; for instance that it is only for a certain body type.

“Any body type can do gymnastics,” Diles said. “It just depends if they have determination.”

They’ve also started new programs to fulfill client demand.

When some gymnasts grew weary of competitive gymnastics, teachers started an all-star cheer team, so the girls could pursue a different passion with the gym. They also started competitive and recreational trampoline classes.

However, they’ve still kept their recreation programs, competitive gymnastics and will also start exhibition gymnastics teams again soon, Thomson said.

“We are following Jan’s legacy. We’re getting back to exhibit teams and taking our equipment to the people,” Diles said. “It’s all for the kids.”

On the Web


Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or clusebrink@isspress.com. Comment on this story at www.issaquahpress.com.

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