Article published in Walpole Times
Bouncing around in shiny red leotards, six girls from the Paradise Gym showed off their all-star talent, swinging, jumping and flipping their small bodies with strength that far outweighed their age.
Paradise Gym sent seven girls to the XCel Regional Gymnastics Championships on May 31, where the girls went up against the best gymnasts from surrounding states. An unusually large representation from Walpole, the gym produced three overall champions, and two who helped toward a state title.
At the regional competitions in Shrewsbury, the Paradise girls teamed up with competitors from six surrounding states to form the Region Six team, with a total of 60 girls. Region 6 in the USA Gymnastics affiliate is made up of New England and New York. The top seven gymnasts from the entire state were chosen at a previous competition to represent Massachusetts at the meet, with Walpole’s Caroline Wilkins, 11, and Westwood’s Allie McCabe, 9, taking two of the spots. Paradise sent five more gymnasts to the all-star regional team, who competed against each other.
Walpole’s Lilly Byrne, 10, won first place overall at the regional meet, with Emily Ledford placing third overall. Abby Byrne, the youngest competitor at age 8, took sixth place overall. Marina Linnert was an all-star competitor, representing Paradise.
Out of the nine girls who competed at the state level, seven were chosen for regionals, something coach Inez May called very rare.
"It’s extremely unusual. While we were there, I would say the bulk of the children that were there were one kid representing a gym," May said. "More than 70 gyms in Massachusetts alone compete at this level."
Getting up to perform at the competition was a rush, Caroline said. After ranking in the top seven gymnasts in Massachusetts, she said she felt shocked that she was about to represent the entire state.
"It was exhilarating," Caroline said. "It was very nerve wracking, but exciting at the same time."
Lilly had a more calm and measured approach to the competition, but admitted some fear.
"I was confident and I knew I was prepared," Lilly said.
The confidence came from months of preparation, practicing up to five days a week for hours each day. Sometimes grueling, the girls said the crunches, pull ups and other exercises built up their strength, allowing them take home their wins.
Along with coaches Michelle May and Tommy Fraser, Inez May said instilling a foundational knowledge of gymnastics and perfecting every movement drove the girls to success.
"We designed our program to do very basic knowledge gymnastics," May said. "What that means is we get them really strong, really flexible and make them understand the core of basic gymnastics."
The girls’ willingness to be taught is a big factor, May said.
"They were completely on board with that style of teaching," she said. "Not every kid that comes through the gym wants that style of teaching and wants to do the conditioning that it takes."
The end result of that hard work was awesome, they said.
"I thought it was really fun," Ellie Handler, 9, said. "It was really fun to have our whole team there to support us."
"I really appreciated the coaches, they were the ones that made us work hard," Allie said.
At the competition, Allie and Caroline competed with their state team, while the all-star competitors represented themselves. Whether competing alone or with others, though, the girls said the support from Paradise carried them through.
"We trust each other," Emily said, noting that one of the best parts of the competition was that all the girls stuck their landings, earning them a team sleep over where they told ghost stories and had a lot of fun.
"I don’t care how I did individually," Caroline said, "I just wanted Massachusetts to win."
On the gym mats, the girls showed how they got to be high-level competitors at such young ages. They coached each other, offering tips and support for Abby, who was working on her skills on bars. They vied for a turn on the mats to show off their latest tumbling improvements, exercising a healthy and friendly competitive spirit. They cheered for each of their teammates’ accomplishments, big or small.
"They love each other, they’re very supportive and we wouldn't have it any other way," May said.
Behind the hard work and support, however, was a passion that really drove them to success. While gathering for a team photo, the girls rearranged, preened and smiled. Off the cuff, Emily said something to the other girls that got down to the core of why Paradise Gym produced so many champions.
"I love gymnastics," she said. "I want to do this for the rest of my life."