Gymnastics Thriving In Rancho Cucamonga

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San Bernardino County SentinelWith the exception of those in San Diego County, public schools throughout Southern California have significantly curtailed, if not entirely discontinued, their gymnastics programs.

In decades past, gymnastics was arguably the signature athletic activity for girls at the high school level in California. It was in gymnastics that young women were able to consistently and impressively outperform young men, who in nearly all other fields of sports endeavor monopolized the attention and funding provided for sports activities. In an ironic development, it was an attempt to more fairly distribute along gender lines the money provided for athletics that doomed gymnastics as a high school athletic staple, at least in Southern California.

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, enacted on June 23, 1972, amended Title IX of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which holds that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…”

Authored by Congresswoman Patsy Mink, the Title IX Amendment was intended to give high school and college women’s athletics a boost by ensuring that money from the federal government would be distributed in greater amounts to sports activities in which women took part. It created some controversy, including concern that it would dismantle men’s sports programs such as football, which proved too large and entrenched of an institution to be undone by the legislation. Nevertheless, the concept of gender specific sports activities was harmed by the legislation, such that gymnastics, a province not exclusive to women but for the most part dominated by them, was in effect dismantled by Title IX reforms. Today, basketball, volleyball, soccer, cross country, and softball, in that order, are the dominant women’s sports.

At private gyms throughout the local area, however, coaches and trainers still dedicated to the sport of gymnastics are bucking that trend.

One of those is Flips Gym in Rancho Cucamonga.  The proprietor of Flips is Freddie Macucci, who has been dedicated to gymnastics most of her life.  With her sister, Freddie started a gymnastics club at West High School in Torrance when she was a student there. While insisting she is not herself a world glass gymnast, Freddie nevertheless maintains, “I just love it as a sport, as an activity, as a hobby.”

Macucci established Flips Gym three years ago. Before that, for four years she ran the gymnastics program with the city of Fontana’s recreation department.  At Flips, there are youthful gymnasts from the ages of three to 17, participating in eight levels. The first level is tiny tots – three and four year old beginners, who are accompanied by parents. Girls have levels two to seven. Boys participate in levels two to six.

Gymnastic intensity can range from the merely participatory right up to the ruthlessly competitive. Macucci’s charges, while competing in meets with other private gymnastics clubs and even in national championships, are not obsessively dedicated to the sport in the way that some other hard core program participants are.  There are two competitive tracks for gymnastics in the United States. One is the competition overseen by the United States of America Gymnastics board, known by the acronym USAG, and the other is the competition managed  by the Amateur Athletic Union, or AAU.

“We do AAU,” Macucci said. “Our league is more of a recreational league. Our kids don’t work out as many hours as some others do whose lives are totally taken up by gymnastics. There can be a difference in the amount of training our kids put in. Most are here two or three days a week. Others, like those in USAG, put in five or six days. Our kids do separate sports. They have a life. They know their parents and brothers and sisters. We are not as intense as USAG.”

The Flips Gym participants, numbering roughly 90 at the present time, do compete in mini-tournaments at other gyms. Occasionally, Flips Gym hosts competitions.  The competitive year runs from January to June.

“It is an activity we engage in year round,” Macucci said. “We’re always here, but the competitive season starts in January and goes to the end of May. They hold the nationals at the end of June. But we are here in the summer, working on getting new skills, and in the fall we start to work on new routines so by January, hopefully, they are ready to compete.”

The league Flips belongs to boasts teams from Bell Gardens, Hesperia, San Bernardino and Murrieta Valley. Ten to twelve teams compete in the tournaments.

Among the Flips participants is Hewie Vargas, a 12-year-old from Fontana who attends Etiwanda Intermediate School. At four foot eleven inches and 66 pounds, he is recently returned from an impressive showing at the Nationals in Orlando, Florida, where he placed first in his class.

Hewie said he first became interested in gymnastics when he saw someone perform a handstand and later got involved informally “with friends.” He has been actively involved in gymnastics, following instructions from coaches, for three years.

He described the sport as “difficult” from the standpoint that “you have to really use your muscles and  balance and skill, keep your toes pointed straight and your body and arms straight. You have to be focusing on pushing, pressing and keeping your legs tight.” He said that for him the greatest challenge is “going from a straddle to an L.”

Vargas said he practices six hours a week on three different days.

At the nationals, he said he competed “in all events. I got first on the parallel bars,” which he described as his strong event. “For the parallel bars, I think the most difficult thing to do is a swing to a handstand. I have to control my momentum and it is more balance then strength at the top. When I am in a handstand, to keep from falling forward or backward or down in general,  I just lean forward and go into an arm swing and move forward and back into a handstand.”

He has a goal, he said. “I hope to get to level six, eventually,” he said. “I’m a level four now and I have most of my skills down.”

Asked if he has any concerns that the maturation process will bulk his lithe form up to the point that he will not be able to perform to his current level, Hewie said, “I think it will slow me down a tad bit, so I will have to build up momentum differently. But I look up to my friend, John. He’s got a lot of muscles and he’s very good.”

Another participant is 12-year-old Raquel Vasquez, also from Fontana. She is a student at Sacred Heart School in Etiwanda.  Though she said she has been active in gymnastics for only “about a year,” Raquel captured a second place medal on the beam at the Nationals in Orlando in June.

Vasquez said she became interested in gymnastics “when I saw them at the Olympics.” While she competes in the floor exercises, bar, beam and vault, she said she currently performs strongest on the beam “because I have done ballet before and you need balance for ballet and the beam.”

She finds floor exercises hardest, she said, “because my back is not that flexible.”

Nevertheless, she said, she is working to improve herself by stretches and “doing conditioning, wearing ankle weights, doing pushups and sit-ups, working and strengthening my legs.”

In terms of skill building, she said she is seeking to “try to control my power on the bars.”

Both Vasquez and Vargas said they would encourage those their age to take up the sport if they are intrigued by it.

“It is very hard in the beginning,” Vasquez said, “but once you start and keep trying, you can get so you can make it through a routine.”

Vargas said he thinks others should try gymnastics, “because it is a lot of fun. Tell them they should try it out. It requires a lot of patience and you can’t be good at once. You have to keep coming to practice and practice and practice, but eventually you will get better.”

Flips Gymnastics is located in Rancho Cucamonga at the Stadium Plaza North Business Park, directly across from the Epicenter Baseball Stadium, at the northeast corner of Rochester Avenue and Jack Benny Drive, 8333 Rochester. The phone number is (951) 966-6054.

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