It’s unfortunate that gymnastics has become more of a niche, club sport in the US, seemingly appreciated only during the Olympic Games. The human vessel is rarely more graceful or fluid than when turning flips while balancing on a four-inch beam, or flying free before grabbing and spinning on a high bar.
But it’s a harder sell in this day and age to convince kids at an early age to start training in the arts of tumbling and twisting when there is no apparent mega-payoff on the horizon beyond a college scholarship, or a gold medal and maybe followup tour if you’re lucky and talented enough — especially for boys.
“You’re competing [for boys] against baseball, basketball and football,” noted gymnastics coach Arthur Minasyan, who works at the Gymnastics Olympica in Van Nuys. “Even soccer, you can make a good [professional] living.”
But Minasyan and Gymnastics Olympica soldier on and continue to develop talented athletes. Three current ones — Jaden Bottarini, 11, Vahe Petrosyan, 12, and Isaiah Drake, 15 — all won age level all-around titles at the US Men’s Junior Olympic Championships held in May at Oklahoma City, Okla., where nearly 800 youths ages 11-18 competed.
Bottarini and Petrosyan won Level 8/Junior Elite titles in their age groups, and Drake was a Junior Elite/Level 10 champion in his age group. His victory earned him a spot on a USA team that is currently competing in the Junior Olympic Pan-American games in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bottarini and Petrosyan are headed to the USA Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., for a week of specialized training starting on June 24.
The accomplish-ments speak well of the trio who all must put in hours of weekly practice on routines and conditioning at the sacrifice of enjoying too much pizza, sleeping late in the summer or hanging out with friends.
All three winners said they wouldn’t change a thing.
“I feel more confident with myself,” said Bottarini, adding he felt he could become good “once I started understanding how to work hard.”
The sport grew on Petrosyan, who said accepting the discipline necessary to become proficient and skilled in gymnastics has taught him “if you really want to go for something you’ve gotta work for it. You have to be passionate. You have to work hard to get it.”
Drake first dabbled in martial arts before giving gymnastics his full attention. “What the sport has given to me and where I could go is amazing. …It’s always about making myself better. You’re never going to be perfect. But you learn how to build up yourself off of the difficulties.”
The three youths have extraordinary athletic talent — “there are certain things they have that are God-given,” Minasyan said — but not so extraordinary that they are the only ones in the country that way.
“What makes them special,” he continued, “is the ability to not only listen but understand the message that is being portrayed by the coach. And that makes a difference. Once they understand it, the implementation comes from themselves. It doesn’t have to be forced, it doesn’t have to be pushed.
“There is a common thread in their ability to take direction, understand the bigger picture, understand the value of discipline, sacrifice and hard work. On a personal level they’re all different. Their humor’s different, their approach, the characteristics of what makes an individual different from others.”
Their dedication is defined by their regimentation. All three are in the gym 5-6 days a week, practicing and polishing routines. They have to be careful of what they eat, make sure they rest, and rehab the body even if it doesn’t feel like it needs it.
“You have to be passionate about it, or else you won’t go far,” Bottarini said. “You have to put in the work.”
It’s one reason why gymnastics can be a harder sell for boys. It’s nothing to see girls develop quickly and be on the world stage at ages 13-14, while boys take longer to physically (and sometimes emotionally) mature. Most aren’t considered for a national team until at least age 18.
And if you do become good enough to make an Olympic team, there are only five available spots. In a country of more than 300 million people the odds, needless to say, can be long.
When asked if Bottarini, Drake, and Petrosyan will someday be on the sport’s highest stage, Minasyan hesitates slightly.
“I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Life can be not so much generous at times,” the coach said. “Barring injuries or anything else thrown at them that is not part of their plan…I do see them at least having the opportunity to make the team. It is a worthy goal for them, a realistic one.”
It is a dream all three said they share. But they also try to spend time still being kids. Drake loves to surf. Bottarini enjoys video games, particularly “Fortnite.” Petrosyan hangs out with friends whenever possible.
But gymnastics has become irretrievably woven into the fabric of their lives.
“[The sport] will make me a better person,” Petrosyan said. “It helps with leadership and teamwork, being part of a bigger picture.”
And, as Drake tells people who ask him about getting into gymnastics, “I ask them if they are willing to put in the hard work, and be able to overcome fear because there are a lot of scary things to try. If you can do that, the sky is the limit.”
As for Minasyan, it’s back to scouting, teaching and training in the hopes of finding others like Bottarini, Drake and Petrosyan.