From round-offs to walkovers, Island Gymnastics flips through the years

From round-offs to walkovers, Island Gymnastics flips through the years

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Beth Goodell is a woman on the move. It’s the last day of a summer camp session at Island Gymnastics Training School in West Tisbury, and the gym is a whirlwind of activity. Kids are diving through hoops and standing on their heads, collecting awards for their feats. Their parents and grandparents are jockeying for position, applauding the little tumblers and boasting of how much each child’s skill level has grown by leaps and bounds.

In many ways, the same could be said of Ms. Goodell, Island Gymnastics’s tireless director, who for the past 20 years has stood at the center of so much frenetic commotion — encouraging each student, processing each application, and zipping from end to end of the school’s spacious facility to address an endless list of demands. The throngs of students and families, the mess of paperwork, the constantly ringing phone — it can be exhausting just to watch. But in the warmth of the bustle, Ms. Goodell, director, coach, and founder, and full devotee of each student, seems at home. It’s because of this sometimes chaotic mix of community involvement, devotion, and fortuitousness that she’s been able to transform an initially haphazard operation into a now two-decade-old Island institution.

“I never really tried to make this happen. I never even took out a business loan,” Ms. Goodell says of the organization’s unlikely start. Instead, Ms. Goodell’s work on the Island began with a request from five young girls who wanted to train and compete in gymnastics year-round. At the time, Ms. Goodell was commuting between Martha’s Vineyard, where she was working as the athletic director of the Boys and Girls Club in Edgartown, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she was finishing school. At the behest of her would-be students and their parents, she set up the program full-time on the Island in 1990, establishing the first and only on-Island program to offer competitive gymnastics.

In the first few years, Ms. Goodell struggled to find a home for her growing operation, setting up temporary shop in the ice arena, the old Island Tire building, Maciel Marine boat shed, the Boys and Girls Club, Leslie Look’s Body Shop in Oak Bluffs, and the Tisbury, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs schools. She relied on the assistance of her husband, Todd, and her students’ parents and grandparents to help run office operations. She was, she says, essentially running a for-profit business that acted like a nonprofit business, with very little money to pay fellow trainers, so she seized upon an offer in 1996 to transform her business into a nonprofit and built a permanent home next to the Charter School.

Even as business grew, Island Gymnastics continued to depend on community involvement, with family members, friends, and students all pitching in to build the facility.

“I have photos of kids clearing the land,” Ms. Goodell says. “Some of my students put up these shingles.” One child’s parent even installed heating in exchange for tuition. Another parent offered her a $200,000 loan. The new facility opened the same day, September 19, 1996, that she gave birth to her daughter. “People tell me,” she says, “I gave birth to a gym and a daughter.”

That spirit of familiarity and generosity has remained central to the gym, with Island Gymnastics now having trained 5,426 students, male and female, from those just learning to walk to adults. Some students, she says, come for just a few sessions or a week of summer camp, while others join teams to practice and compete year-round. Island Gymnastics has also extended some 692 scholarships to students who would otherwise be unable to attend, says Ms. Goodell. Those scholarships are divided between boys and girls and across age ranges, according to the demands of her nonprofit charter, but also between the different towns on the Island, according to her own desire to serve.

“People like to think of the Island as a very rich, fancy place,” says Ms. Goodell, but notes that she’s worked with many students who come from foster homes, have parents who are in jail, or suffer from learning disabilities. One hope for the future, she says, is to gain more resources to better serve children with special needs.

It’s very important that everyone feels welcome at Island Gymnastics, says Ms. Goodell, who likens the gym to a community center. “Every kid here has equal value, whether you’ve been here a day or you’re a Junior Olympian.”

In keeping with the theme of low-key community cooperation that has served Island Gymnastics so well, the school will host a reunion potluck dinner for former and current gymnasts this Saturday, August 28, at 5:30 pm at Island Gymnastics, located at 410 State Road, in celebration of its milestone anniversary. Unlike so many summer events on the Island, it’s likely to be more celebratory rather than celebrity, with the main attraction being a big slideshow commemorating the facility and its student’s many acrobatic leaps toward success.

Vanessa Czarnecki, a 2006 graduate of Boston University, is a freelance writer living in Chilmark. She most recently worked as managing editor of the Boston Phoenix.