Flight School in Hillsboro is built on a passion for gymnastics
Gymnastics is alive and well, and there's proof of it at Flight School.
Every four years the country — and really, the world — are mesmerized by what gymnasts across the globe are able to do on the floor, on various apparatus, and of course through the air at the Olympic games.
Phil and Lynette Sappington are no different, but their love affair with the sport is more than cyclical. It has developed into a passion they're spreading by way of their gym in Hillsboro.
"We had dreams and goals that we wanted to achieve from a gymnastics perspective, and the only way to do that is to actually own your own gym," Phil Sappington said. "That way, you can control how things are run, how kids are treated, and develop these kids into not only amazing athletes, but amazing citizens."
The Sappingtons started Flight School in summer 2003 and since have fostered acrobatic skills in countless area kids. A number — including their own kids — have gone on to earn scholarships at schools from Alaska to Georgia, and even New York, where the Sappingtons' son Justin competed for Army roughly a decade ago.
But while Sappingtons' school and its coinciding competitive teams aim for perfection, the goals of its students are dictated not by Phil, Lynette and their handful of coaches, but rather by those under their tutelage.
"We want kids to do better and at the same time don't want to hold them back," Phil Sappington said. "We want them to reach their goals, but we want them to be their goals, not ours. We just want them to get where they want to go, wherever that may be."
Flight School is not just about the competition, either. It's about many things, including a simple introduction to the sport of gymnastics.
Classes start for kids as young as 12 months. They not only allow for parent participation, but encourage it.
Lynette Sappington explained that as soon as kids can walk, they can — with the help of their parents — be taken through a series of basic skills exercises like rolling, walking on a simulated beam, learning to hold on to a bar, and jumping on a trampoline.
As the kids age and progress from a skills standpoint, they can advance to a class for 3- to 4-year-olds, then when they reach school age, they are grouped with similar-aged kids. They even have classes for teenagers who have never tried gymnastics but are interested to learn.
Gymnasts learn and compete at levels 1 through 10, with 10 being "elite," but Phil Sappington said that the rate of advancement is dictated not only by their level of skill, but also by their age in the interests of their safety.
"There are age minimums for every level," he said. "We can't have a 5-year-old competing at level 10 — it just wouldn't be safe. The development would be too fast, and there would be issues. This is a way to protect the children, which is obviously very good."
Lynette Sappington learned gymnastics at a young age, but she ended her competitive career prior to high school due to the her school's elimination of a competitive team. She was reintroduced to it when her son showed interest at age 2.
"They had an adult class at the same time as his," Lynette Sappington said, "So, I joined and from there started teaching classes at the gym."
Phil Sappington had no prior experience. He was a competitive soccer player growing up and coached teams in the area up until his wife asked if he'd help to spot kids at the gym she worked. From there, he found himself mesmerized by the sport's physicality, but more so by the infinite technical aspects involved.
"It just boggled my mind," Phil Sappington said. "In soccer, you can kick a ball harder and curve it one way or the other, but with gymnastics, there was no end. When you mastered a skill, you could then add a twist, a flip, then maybe another half twist, whatever. It just never ends."
That challenge and creativity is what hooked Flight School student and competitor Johanna Dezellem, 18, a senior at Glencoe High School who has been training at the gym for nine years.
Dezellum, like most of the competitive team members, trains four hours per day, roughly five days per week. She said it's that constant challenge that keeps her engaged.
"I like that it's always a new challenge, and I like the environment," she said. "I enjoy all of it, but my favorite part is overcoming challenges, trying new things and hanging out with all of my teammates."
And hanging with your teammates in some cases means traveling — dependent on age and skill level — to places like the Oregon coast, Seattle, and even Arizona for local, regional and national meets.
Livy Taylor, 11, has been training at the school since she was 18 months old. She said the travel is one of her favorite parts.
"I like learning new things," Taylor said. "But it's fun to go places and also just fun to hang out with my friends and show off my skills."
Phil Sappington said parents travel with the team when they go out of town. The children's safety is of the utmost importance to them when they're on the road, he added.
"The parents travel because it's just way safer," he said. "It wasn't like that when I was a kid playing soccer, but it probably always should've been that way. On our trips, the parents often get houses together, and the girls always have fun stories."
Flight School's competitive team competes from December to May, dependent on age and how far one advances, in state, regional and national competitions. This year, the gym was able to host its first "home" meet at Hillsboro's new Wingspan Event and Conference Center by the fairgrounds.
"It's great to have that," Phil Sappington said. "We hope that will help attract more athletes, but more than anything it allows the girls to have a kind of home meet that they can display their skills."
The reputation that gymnastics has garnered in recent years is an uncomfortable one, and Phil and Lynette Sappington are aware of some of the misgivings people may have about it — primarily revolving around the scandal involving a team doctor at Michigan State University who was convicted of sexually abusing members of the U.S. gymnastics team. But it's because of such instances that they, and coaches and gym owners like them, are further involving themselves in gymnastics — so as to assure things are being done properly.
"We don't want to be associated with things like that. They could've ruined the sport," Phil Sappington said. "Coaches that remain in this sport like us are making sure that everyone's following the same rules and are properly supervising the athletes. Because people are more aware of what's gone on, coaches and gym owners are more aware, and I think things will be better in the long run."
Ultimately, the Sappingtons love the sport and they're honoring it through their gym. But they also love their students, and they want to do everything in their power to make sure they get the most from their gymnastics experience.
"We want to have national qualifiers and kids that earn college scholarships, and we want to work towards bigger and higher skills, but we want to do it safely and by building kids up in a positive way," Phil Sappington said. "The only way we could control that was by having our own business. We want to do it the right way."
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