LUMBERTON — The young ladies at Lumberton Gymnastics Academy are doing backflips in anticipation of this year’s Southeastern Regional Competition in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Eight academy gymnasts will be competing against 1,200 others in the event, which is Thursday.
The girls have fared well at past regionals, with individual gymnasts bringing home several bronze, silver and gold medals — and bragging rights.
The gym, at 1601 Godwin Ave. in Lumberton, opened in 1991 and has operated under co-owners and sisters Kenan Lundy and Leisha Waters since 2004.
Lundy, a seasoned gymnast, trained at Sandhills Gym in Pinehurst as a teen and started working part-time at the academy when she was 17 years old.
After the previous owner retired, Lundy signed a one-year lease on the gym. With each other’s support, Lundy and Waters took the plunge and became business owners.
“She wanted to do it, but she was a little scared to do it herself, so we decided to do it together,” Waters said about Lundy wanting to buy the gym.
While co-owning the academy is a collaborative effort in most respects, Waters tends to manage the financial aspect of the business while Lundy plays the more active role of coach.
“It’s not always about first place, it’s about them overcoming fears or seeing the kid that’s worked so hard and struggled finally meet their own personal reward. It just makes you so proud of them to see them meet their goals,” Lundy said.
While Waters considers herself a “silent partner,” she regularly sends encouraging words to the gymnasts from the sidelines.
Though never a gymnast herself, Waters experienced what the life entails after spending her childhood following Lundy around to competitions and practices. She has found a home away from home at the academy and a family in the girls that come to train.
“When you spend that much time with the kids and you get to watch them set their goals and then reach them, you really do become like family,” Waters said.
The girls and parents agree speak of cherishing the close-knit relationships they have fostered with each other while spending seemingly countless hours together at practice and competitions. The gym now has as many as 100 girls a week.
“This place is really a second family, and one thing that I love about it is the girls here are from public schools, private schools, homeschools and charter schools and they have a group of friends outside of their own set group,” Brianna Shepherd said.
Brianna and husband Alvin have been bringing their daughter Kara to the academy for the past three years, making the 40-minute trip three nights a week to take her to practice.
Kara took part in recreational gymnastics her first year at the academy, before building her skill set and being invited to join the team the next year.
“She was extremely shy, and it’s helped her come out of her shell and open up,” Alvin said.
“This is the biggest confidence booster that a child can ever participate in,” said Sandra Evans, mother of 11-year-old Madelyn, who has been training at the academy since she was a 3-year-old.
“My daughter’s participation in this has given her the confidence to do other things. She was able speak in front of 5,000 people for Beta Club because of this,” Evans said.
Team gymnasts at the academy range in age from 6 to 15. However, the gym offers classes for children as young as 18 months.
The youngest team gymnast is 6-year-old Kendall Foil, who trains alongside her sister, 8-year-old Katie Foil.
Katie has been at the gym for three years and Kendall for two. Like Lundy and Waters, these sisters find comfort in being a part of the same team. They often push each other to do better at the gym and at home.
Aside from Lundy and Waters, the gym employs seven coaches. Three of them are assigned to teams.
Others, like Amanda Steelman, who relocated from Delaware to Lumberton after her fiancé took a job at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, work with the gymnasts individually. Though Steelman has been at the gym only a three months, her positive attitude and love for the sport allows her to blend right in as part of the family.
The teams typically participate in seven competitions a year across the Southeast, from North Carolina, to South Carolina, to Tennessee and even as far as Disney World in Florida.
“We don’t always win first, but we have a lot of individual winners,” Lundy said.
Like Kiera Lewis, who has been training at the gym five years and recently finished an undefeated season.
With regionals coming up, practice is more important than ever.
“They’ve all been moving up in their skills and they’re doing well. This year is really a growing year to get prepared for next year’s competitions,” Lundy said.
However, Lundy’s and Waters’ plans for the gym reach much further into the future than the upcoming year.
“This is all I’ve ever done and all I’ve ever wanted to do. I don’t want it to end,” Lundy said.
Reach Morgan Bishop via email at [email protected]