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Performing to Perfection

By Joel Koch, 01/01/19, 6:30PM EST


The Northstar Gymnastics Silver Team poses for a podium photo following the 2018 Gymnastics on the Grand awards ceremony. Contributed Photo

Strength has several shades of meaning … the two most prevalent are physical and mental. Looking at the state of youth gymnastics in Rockford, you will see both types emanating from a pair of the top youth programs in the Midwest – Northstar Gymnastics and Rising Starz Gymnastics.

Countless hours spent in the gym make the physical strength of these gymnasts immediately evident. It’s when you watch them compete that the mental strength shines through. It’s no mistake either – it’s what both programs strive to teach their athletes.

“Our program is so much more than gymnastics. That’s really just the bonus,” says Sarah Gross, head coach and owner of Rising Starz. “I’m most proud of the values that these kids are learning. These kids are learning real life skills that will help them develop in to some pretty amazing humans.”

It’s a mind-set echoed by Tim Chesla, owner/president of Northstar.

“There are so many great values the kids learn,” shares Chesla. “We try to teach the kids that these are just not values for sport, but they are life values. Principles like be thankful for the things you have, embrace success and failure, and never quit learning.”

The competition platform Gross and Chesla selected for their gymnastics programs to teach kids is called, “Xcel.” According to the governing body USA Gymnastics, Xcel is an alternative competitive program offering individual flexibility to coaches and gymnasts. The goal of Xcel is to provide gymnasts of varying abilities and commitment levels the opportunity for a rewarding gymnastics experience.

“The program was started and then adapted by USA Gymnastics as an alternative to the more intense Junior Olympic training,” explains Gross. “Our Xcel Program offers athletes of all different levels and abilities to participate in competitive gymnastics with more flexibility to explore other sports and activities.”

The program has been a near perfect 10 for both gyms, boasting yet another strength – strength in numbers. Northstar has 70 gymnasts competing in three of the five levels of Xcel (Silver, Gold and Platinum), while Rising Starz has 87 girls competing in four (Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond). Those numbers are phenomenal in Michigan, making them two of the largest Xcel teams in the state.

Participation numbers aside, they’re also two of the most successful teams throughout  The Mitten with nine of the Top 30 scores at last season’s state meet … a whopping 30 percent. All nine qualified to represent the State of Michigan during regional competition last season. Their contributions at that next level brought home team titles for Michigan in the Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond divisions at the Region 5 Championships in Indianapolis, Ind.

“I’m very proud of our Xcel program,” Chesla beams. “Watching the kids learn in this beautiful sport and how hard they work at it. The way they face the challenges and how they handle them. Really watching these young athletes grow into such great individuals.”

That growth starts young for many of the gymnasts, some joining the teams beginning at 5-or-6-years-old. Some continue at the Xcel level through their high school years, while some choose to compete for their school.

Both Chesla and Gross agree that their Xcel programs have become a feeder system for the Rockford Rams varsity team. The numbers back those thoughts up, as 11 of the 15 girls listed on the Rams roster this winter came from either Northstar (Morgan Case, Ashley Faulkner, Caleigh Kusmierski and Avery Labbe), or Rising Starz (Reagan Ammon, Chantel Lokers, Joey Gair, Jordan Rogers, Elise Kinlaw, Nicole Curtis and Shelby Taylor). And, the lessons they learned and successes obtained early on, have all helped the big Rams become a powerhouse, winning back-to-back-to-back state titles beginning in 2015.

“We have had so many of our amazing Rising Starz team athletes take on the floors of the RHS team,” Gross says humbly. “We are very proud of all the accomplishments and representation we see in our surrounding community high schools.”

Even with all of the accolades, it still boils down to one very basic premise at both gyms – instilling strength of character in their gymnasts.

“We want to continue to nurture and teach each and every athlete, while continuing to keep the core values of our team,” Chesla says. “The importance of self-respect and to respect others. Being part of a great team and having empathy for your teammates. Honesty, hard work, tenacity, patience and resilience. The list keeps going.”

As Gross reflects, her thoughts are quite similar, “It’s crazy to look back and see not only the growth of the kids I’ve coached, but also my own personal growth. Gymnastics is not an easy sport. It may come easy for some, but even for those kids there will be a day where it becomes hard.  Being able to help young athletes realize their potential and be a part of the moment where they find it is something that will always stay with me. I enjoy being a part of their growth. Watching kids learn to be a good teammate, learn and radiate amazing sportsmanship, fight through fears and failures, develop strong work ethics, become confident in who they are and so much more. Gymnastics teaches many life lessons that will carry on with them into adulthood.”

All of this while still making sure the kids are having fun … the future of gymnastics in Rockford is no doubt trending toward a perfect 10.0.

Members of the Northstar Gymnastics Platinum Team waives to the crowd during introductions at the 2018 Gymnastics on the Grand competition. Contributed Photo