Walter Ford

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July 5, 2012
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Climbing to the TOPs: Local youths put in time and effort to be elite gymnasts

Four very talented, very determined and very acrobatic young girls are spending much of their summer tumbling, lifting and climbing toward their gymnastic dreams at Gold Country Gymnastics in Grass Valley.

Coach Seth Nix is training local gymnasts Hailey Spoto, 9, Ayla Black, 6, Ali Vandra, 7, and Casey Spoto, 7, as they progress through the Talented Opportunity Program, or TOPs.

"The TOPS program is the fast track to be elite," Nix said. "It's for younger girls that are very talented."

TOPs is a talent search and educational program for female gymnasts ages 7-10 and their coaches. During the months of June and July young gymnasts are evaluated on physical abilities at the state or regional level, according to the TOPs website.

Casey Spoto and Ali are set to attend their first TOPs competition July 21 in Roseville.

The TOPs competition will consist of several strength and flexibility tests on which each gymnast is judged. There are no winners and losers at TOPs competitions as everyone receives a participation certificate. Scores are tallied at a later point and then sent to the coaches. If a gymnast scores over 75 they are invited to the national competition in Texas.

"I'm really excited," Nix said. "They've been working really hard and I think they will do really well as long as they keep up the hard work.

"The main thing with them is that they have fun; and as long as they have fun, I'm happy."

Hard work and fun are two of the essentials for the young gymnasts who put in 16-hour practice weeks.

"It's not for these girls," Wendy Spoto, mother of Hailey and Casey, said when asked if the girls were practicing too much. "They get home after four hours of gymnastics and they're still doing cartwheels all over the house. People think it's extreme until they spend time with them."

Plus, All the time the girls spend in the gym and with each other have taught them life lessons and helped them form deep friendships, said Lisa Black, mother of Ayla.

"They are helpful to each other, they don't bring each other down and it's a solid environment," Lisa Black said.

The bonds that Hailey Spoto has formed with her fellow gymnasts is her favorite part of being in gymnastics, she said.

Coach Nix said that what the girls get from being in TOPs and in gymnastics in general, is a leg up on learning how to treat their bodies right.

"It helps keep them in really good shape," he said. "It helps keep their bodies healthy and helps prevent injury with all the flexibility."

Lisa Black and Wendy Spoto both said some people have been critical of how much time the girls spend in the gym at such a young age, but they both contend their daughters love it and it keeps them focused and out of trouble.

Nix said that to compete at a high-level in gymnastics its better to get the involved early.

"If kids get into the gym at 3- or 4-years-old and stick with it they can start competing at 7 and do very well," Nix said. "That's the average age of the level 4's, for boys and girls."

Ayla Black, whose favorite part of gymnastics is the bars, is the youngest of the TOPs girls at 6-years-old and she will get her first crack at competition next year, Nix said.

Something she is looking forward to, Ayla Black said.

When the July 21 competition comes up for Casey Spoto and Vandra, they will compete in events such as rope climbing, leg lifting, flexibility for splits and handstands.

For all the TOPs girls at Gold Country Gymnastics they said they are looking forward to watching the Olympic gymnasts this summer and honing their skills as they progress in the sport.

To contact Sports Writer Walter Ford, email or call (530) 477-4232.

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The Union Updated Jul 5, 2012 02:07AM Published Jul 5, 2012 02:02AM Copyright 2012 The Union. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.