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Santa Maria Sun / Sports Lead

The following article was posted on May 1st, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 8 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 14, Issue 8

Not your average athlete

It takes dedication and a mini six-pack of abs to be on the boys' gymnastics team at KT's


Hunter Hall looks up at the thick rope hanging ominously from the soaring ceiling. Without even hesitating, he grabs hold of it and begins to climb his way up. In the blink of an eye, he’s already at the top and lowering himself to the ground.

The boys’ gymnastics team endures intense practices 3 1/2 hours a day, three times a week, working on strength, cardio, and mastering their routines.

Hall does “rope climbs” 15 to 20 times every gymnastics practice, and he’s only 9 years old. But with a strength that seems to contradict his young body, he makes activity look like nothing.

Hall is one of the six elite athletes who comprise the boys’ competitive gymnastics team at KT’s Gymnastics in the Santa Maria Town Center. The gym moved to its monstrous current facility after outgrowing its previous space on Skyway Drive.

Gymnastics enthusiasts and long-time coaches Katey and Dave Eckenrode own KT’s Gymnastics, which has been in Santa Maria for 10 years. The couple said they’ve seen the most success in the last year; they currently have 450 students.

“Now we see kids we’ve coached bringing in their kids,” Katey said with a laugh.

Hunter Hall completes at least 15 rope climbs each practice with astonishing speed and agility—something he knows most kids his age can’t do.

The gym, which boasts a range of gymnasts from ages 2 to adult, has always received plenty of notoriety for its girls’ team, which carries 35 girls, 13 of whom compete. It wasn’t until three years ago the gym decided to establish a competitive boys’ team, and now the guys are commanding their own recognition as super athletes and competitors.

The Eckenrodes are hoping to recruit more members for the team. According to Dave, they’re competing against teams with 55 gymnasts. Katey, steeped in knowledge as a former competitive gymnast, said there was a steep learning curve at first with the boys; competitions and scoring for males is different from the girls.

“Boys’ competitions tend to be more laid back and not as popular,” Eckenrode said. “You also have to spot boys more, and they warm up before all of their events.”

Eckenrode did mention that scoring is slightly tougher for boys; although they may score high points, only the top percentage is selected to move up in competition.

Despite the learning curve, this boys’ team is slowly making waves in competitive gymnastics. Take, for instance, Sean Hollingshead—13 years old—who placed first as the All-Around champion for level five at the state meet last season and is also a member of the Southern California All-Star gymnastics team. Hollingshead moved up a level this year and placed ninth out of 47 for the 11- to 18-year-old division at the state event.

Among the younger gymnasts of the squad, Hall qualified for state and regionals this year placing seventh at the state event on the high bar. A newcomer to gymnastics, Benji Noriega—also 13—qualified for both state and regionals this season as well, but didn’t place. Sabastian Thau (9) and Ebba Tefera (10) are still-developing competitive gymnasts.

“Last year, Sean went to regionals and beat everyone from California, Arizona, Nevada, and Hawaii,” Dave said with pride. “Our little gym is competing with powerhouse gyms coached by Olympians.”


Putting in the time

It’s a busy Wednesday night at KT’s gymnastics when the competitive boys’ team poses for a picture, shirtless and proudly exposing their hard-earned abs—a testament to their rigorous training and commitment.

Sitting with them is their coach, Jake Duty, a Marine and former competitive gymnast at KT’s.

Duty, stern in his commands and blunt in his instruction, works to instill discipline in his athletes. The coach puts his team through intense workouts—the first hour and 20 minutes of practice is warm ups, stretching, conditioning (which includes a two-mile run), and then training in all events with only one break. While it may seem like a bit much, the sport demands heavy training.

“I always try to tell people gymnastics is not your run-of-the-mill sport,” Duty said. “Upper levels train five days a week.”

The boys of KT’s gym train three days a week for 3 1/2 hours a practice—even during the off-season. They also attend training camps at the Woodward Gym in Los Angeles during the summers to work with Olympic coaches.

According to Katey, gymnastics provides a wealth of benefits outside of the physical aspect, helping the athletes to mature mentally as well.

“Gymnastics requires total commitment and builds discipline,” she said. “It also helps kids who have too much energy or trouble focusing because it teaches them to zero in on a goal.”

In addition to learning respect and leadership skills, she said, gymnastics also builds a good base and agility for other sports.

“If you instill work ethic into these kids early, it will carry over into everything they do,” she explained.

That includes schoolwork—Katey said their athletes must maintain a solid GPA in school in order to compete.

“We expect gymnasts to be of a certain caliber and stay committed,” she said.

But perhaps what makes these boys stand out most is their ability to accomplish things other kids their age can’t do—which includes running two miles carrying each other uphill, the infamous “rope climbs,” pull ups, and back flips.

“These kids represent 2 percent of the population as far as what they can do,” Duty said.

The benefits are obvious: Each of these boys—all pre-pubescent—has countable abs that would make most 18-year-olds jealous.

Despite their “elite” status, boys’ gymnastics is still fighting for respect from other male athletes and gaining popularity. Katey said it’s a common misconception that boys’ gymnastics is a “twinkle sport.”

“I don’t think people understand the strength that is involved in gymnastics,” Katey said. “Pound for pound, these kids are the strongest athletes out there.”

Dave said the tide is starting to turn, though; there are more wrestling and football coaches sending in their athletes because they realize the benefits of such rigorous training.

Cameron Edwards-Rea—who, according to Coach Duty, is a raw, muscular talent—got his start in gymnastics at age 3.

“I watched the Olympics when I was little and would try to do stuff in my backyard,” Edwards-Rea said.

The 10th-grade vaulting champion competes on the rings, floor, vault, and high bar. His goal for next year is to make it to nationals and work on the pommel horse and parallel bars in the meantime.

“Gymnastics has taught me to stay healthy, not be afraid of anything, and to make smart decisions,” Edwards-Rea said. “Ever since I was little, gymnastics has always made me smile.”

While the Eckenrodes admit they love having banners and trophies to decorate their colorful gym, they defy the stereotype of the drill-sergeant gymnastics coach. For this enthusiastic duo, the end game is helping these kids have fun and get to college.

“We push them as hard as they want to be pushed,” Dave said. “When they are 25 years old, we want them to look back and say they had a good time.”

Katey said that if she gets an athlete who is committed, willing to work, and loves the sport—anything can be accomplished.

“These boys have unlimited potential,” she said. “Every single boy is a hard worker, and I can see all of them making a college team, no problem.” m


Staff Writer Kristina Sewell is flipping out. Contact her at


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