Where is the rock to stand upon?
These are not easy times. We were open and planning on staying open, then we were closing but with some offerings, then we closed. That was all in one week. So we developed Gymfinity Go! An online program for the kids we were missing. For the kids we love teaching. But these are not easy times, and I had to make decisions based on what I value, what I believed. When I announced that we would stay open, cautiously moving forward; I was bombarded with emails thanking us, and other emails yelling at me; calling me irresponsible, careless, and “money hungry.” I knew those were words of fear, and I forgave each detractor instantly, because I could understand, when fear is all you have, you lash out and it seemed that fear was all they had. I was willing to take the insults because I promise every coach, when I hire them, that I will take care of them. I didn’t want to let them down. These are not easy times. Information rolled in and it changed every hour. I had to decide to keep the kids and staff safe. The only way I could do it was to close. Then I needed to scramble to figure out a way to support my people and keep the business alive. There were no easy answers, and I had to dig deep and try to find a rock I could stand upon while the waves crashed around my feet. I found it. I went back and asked myself “why on Earth did you ever do this in the first place?” Seriously, that’s where I came to.
I was just a kid and being from a divorced family, I idolized my brothers. My oldest brother EJ was the daredevil and the rebel. And the middle brother, Harold (everyone but me calls him Harry), he was the athlete. Charged with watching me after school, Harold would take me to gymnastics practice with him. I would watch those guys: Gary Aspinlighter, Rick Gunther, Al Perry, Bob Koma, and my brother. I wanted to be like that. Those guys were awesome. So, I tried gymnastics, but I was a very small and, dare I say, wimpy kid. So, it was a challenge for me. Then I hit a growth spurt and grew 13 inches in high school, and gymnastics became even tougher. But we (my friends Daryl, Michael, and Thomas) worked harder than anyone else. If the coach said do 20 sit-ups, we did 30. If practice ended at 5:00, we left about 6:00. We trained hard and at times it paid off. Other times it was just what we did. We learned that any mountain could be climbed, if you kept your head down and just kept climbing.
Fast forward, and I was competing for UW LaCrosse. As a Floor and Vault specialist I was often separated from the rest of the team while they worked the other events. I stayed on floor and trained with the girls. I had such respect for the girls team because they worked hard, and it showed; they were good gymnasts and good people. But, I was still kind of an outsider. I was on the team but not a part of it. Hung with the girls but not part of that scene either. I have always been pretty shy, but I knew that the culture of a team needed to be built around including people. About lifting them up, together. It was around then that I started coaching as a college job. (I had actually started coaching at age 15 to help pay for my own gymnastics training but stopped when I went to school). I had a chance to build a team, the way I thought it should be built.
I coached at several gyms, YMCAs, Boys & Girls Club, camps, gyms in Nevada, gyms in LaCrosse, Assisted at UWL (the year they won their first of 16 national Championships) and many points between. I ended up coaching in a club and helping to establish the team there. I worked 60+ hours a week and loved every minute. This team was my family. They worked hard, loved the sport, and were fun to be around. They supported each other, were hungry to learn and reach new heights. They were so passionate about being gymnasts, and I loved it. It was everything I dreamed a team should be. But the gym owner was getting on in years and the focus became more about revenue than quality. I was challenged to bring in more and not be so focused on developing the kids we had. It rubbed me the wrong way. If there is one thing, I am not shy in sharing, it’s my opinion when I think something is wrong.
Long story short: I was fired. Then I got hired and I coached for an association. They had no idea how to run a gym. They wanted big numbers without knowing how, and again, I was looking for a job. I always believed that if you did your job right and prepared the athletes with heart and a drive for quality, the numbers would come. Everyone was so worried about the math yet somehow missing the importance of what we were doing. We were helping to raise children. Children who counted on us to show them right from wrong, to guide them, develop them, and to teach them gymnastics too. I had big ideas and my heart hurt. I couldn’t find a place that believed, like I did, that kids can have fun, learn skills, and become dedicated, driven, and determined all using the tool of gymnastics. I knew that kids who develop these traits would keep them even after their time in the sport was over. I had a philosophy, I just had no gym where I could apply it. I am very introspective and I discovered that, to me, gymnastics was a vehicle for developing successful humans. Why didn’t anyone else see it?
So, I partnered with a man whose daughters were gymnasts and he thought I would be a good coach for them. He staked the money and I brought the knowledge and passion. He told me in the beginning to not worry about the math, just be a good coach. I was home. We opened Gymfinity.
I wanted a program that was based on character and used gymnastics as a vehicle to help kids grow and determine their own potential. I wanted to help them surpass what they perceived were their own limits. I knew that if I could share my passion that the math would work itself out.
I was very picky about who I hired. I needed people who saw the kids as small people we could have an impact on, not numbers in and out the door. I looked for people who loved teaching, loved gymnastics, and loved the challenge of working for a guy who never ran a business before and I found the best people, (I even married one of those great hires).
I was not a businessman. I asked myself, how hard could it be? It was just like coaching a team. You learn the rules. You put in your time working hard to prepare. You know there will be ups and downs, and you build a team of passionate and smart people. Together you will find success. I knew that I had a good head for creativity and was up for the challenge of making it all work. We built it, and they came. It was wonderful. I was coaching 7 days a week and about 13 hours a day, with weekend days of just 9 hours. I worked with the best people: the kids and the coaches. If this was business, I was loving it. Then my partner wanted out. Steph and I bought him out and a year later we bought the building and the land. We grew and we grew. Even in the recession, when other gyms were closing, we stayed steady. After the lean years, we grew again, and in 2014 we added on offices because my good people needed a placed to work. We built a bigger lobby, because my parents deserved to watch their kids without standing on top of each other. And we expanded the gym, more space because these kids deserved the best.
We ran gymnastics classes, started one of the only trampoline/tumbling teams in Wisconsin, ran fitness classes (alas no more), we brought Ninja classes to Madison, and we ran summer camps as a licensed childcare provider. The challenge then became “where do we go from here?” Others emulated us, but no one could be us. I was happy. My staff was amazing, and I was so proud of them. My kids were showing well in competition and I was full of pride for them too. The gym was a success.
So here we are. I am a guy who dreamed of being a coach way back when Harold took me to the gym. I’m a guy who watched all the good bosses and vowed to be just like them someday. A guy who watched the bad bosses and promised to NEVER be like that. I was a coach/owner, though my business friends told me to get out of the gym and run the business like a business. But I’m a coach. So, I built a top-level management team. I built a staff training system that guaranteed that any passionate person, good with kids, could become a great coach. In fact, I was asked to teach my training system at national level conferences, and I became a “professional consultant” helping businesses in the industry attain the quality that all kids deserve.
Then the Covid monster came along. I was called “money hungry”, irresponsible, and uncaring. But maybe it was that I cared too much. I wanted the place that always felt like home to be there for the kids and for my staff. Together I knew we could climb any mountain before us. But we had to close, for safety sake. My staff was furloughed. My management team was working remotely, and we meet frequently through laggy video chats and text messages. They are so hungry to get back in the gym that they would help build an online coaching system and teach via video and Facebook comments. These are people with passion and heart. I see now, more than ever, that these kids are in the best of care. I know that we will be back. We will be together again. Teaching, caring and loving the kids as they grow. They will get to see their potential and we will teach them to surpass it. We are strong. We are determined. We are Gymfinity and I have never had more hope and resolve. I am ready for the fight and yes, I know, these are not easy times, and I am not afraid.
And that’s Why I work and support Gymfinity Gymnastics. Thank you J for sharing your story.
Thank you Tracey, your comment made my day.
Ditto to everything you say here. A man after my own heart. Good luck to you and all your wonderful staff.
Hope you are all continuing to do well! You guys are amazing – the right kind of people we need in this sport!
Thank you John. We sure miss going to meets and seeing everyone.