Young Silverdale gymnasts aim for spot on the U.S. Olympic team

Samantha “Sammy” Thompson, 9, practices on the beam while Lisa Watson, 10, looks on at the Olympic Gymnastics Center in Silverdale. The young gymnasts recently participated in a training camp in Houston that is a feeder program to the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team. - JJ Swanson
Samantha “Sammy” Thompson, 9, practices on the beam while Lisa Watson, 10, looks on at the Olympic Gymnastics Center in Silverdale. The young gymnasts recently participated in a training camp in Houston that is a feeder program to the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team.
— image credit: JJ Swanson

Two gymnasts from Silverdale beat out 2,500 girls in the nation to place in a training camp which is a feeder program to the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team.

Scouts for the Talent Opportunity Program camp look for the most promising gymnasts in the nation between the ages of 8 and 10 years to build into future olympians, said Greg Mutchler, owner of Olympic Gymnastics Center in Silverdale. After rounds of testing, Samantha “Sammy” Thompson, 9, and Lisa Watson, 10, were invited to the training camp in Houston last month.

For a week, the girls performed on vault, bar, beam and floor routines and were then divided into A and B camps.

Only the top 50 in the nation placed in A camp. Sammy was one of them.

Lisa missed the cut off for A camp by a very small point margin, said Mutchler. But she went on to place highest of all the gymnasts in the beam during two days of clinic that followed.

Sammy and Lisa train at the Silverdale gym for four to six hours a day, five days a week. The petite gymnasts can climb up and down a 12-foot rope, using only their arms, in under 10 seconds.

Last year, Sammy fractured her thumb but kept on training.

“It didn’t slow her up at all. She still climbed the rope with her cast,” said Shannon Thompson, Sammy’s mother.

“The strength of these kids is incredible,” said Tori Smieja, trainer at Olympic Gymnastics Center. “They are tougher than football players and strength condition every part of their body, down to the tips of their fingers and toes.”

Friends and family have told Thompson that they think the training schedule is too much for a young girl.

“It’s not a life for your typical kid,” said Mutchler. “But parents, tutors and teachers all have to work together to support that extraordinary talent.”

The gym provides teachers and tutors for its young gymnasts so that they don’t fall behind because of their long training hours. Sammy is also home schooled due to her busy schedule.

“I have lots of friends,” said Sammy. “My best friends are all here at the gym.”

Sammy and Lisa have been training together since they were 4 and 5 years old. All the girls are close but also “super competitive” with each other, said Thompson.

Mutchler said he saw something different about Sammy when she first entered the gym.

“We test all the girls for basic strengths, but in a group, you’ll always see one that is bouncier, they’ll be hopping up just a little higher than the others. Quick twitch muscles are a good indicator of future talent,” said Mutchler.

Other factors might be in the genes, explained Mutchler. For example, if a gymnast’s mother and father are tall, over six feet, it may not bode well for a student looking to go professional. Both parents having some athletic background is a plus. Sammy’s mother was a competitive swimmer, with an opportunity to swim for Brigham Young University’s team, and her father was a swimmer and football player.

The best physical characteristics for a young gymnast are petite, springy, and flexible, said Mutchler. Some of these factors they are born with, others can be trained.

“Flexibility and strength training is something that you have to start at a very young age to go pro,” said Smieja. “It’s also good to learn the scarier skills before fear of falling sets in around 12 years old.”

The U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Team accepts five gymnasts every four years. The International Gymnastics Federation has set the minimum age at 16 years by the time of competition. There has been controversy in the past concerning underage gymnasts such as the Chinese team allowing a 14-year-old girl to compete in 2000.

Lisa and Sammy have years of training ahead of them before they will be old enough to try out for the U.S. Olympic team. However, the mere mention of “gold medal” makes their eyes light up.

“Yes!” said Lisa, “I’m going to win on the beam.”

Though many girls at the gym dream of trying out for the Olympic team, being a part of the TOPs program puts Lisa and Sammy’s chances much higher than most, said Mutchler.

“They are already beating out girls all over the nation and training under legends like Tammy Biggs and Bela Karolyi, making all the right connections. They are on the fast track,” said Thompson.

Both mother and coaches plan to “go for it” pushing the young gymnasts as far as they can go down the path to Olympic glory. Thompson is also exploring scholarship opportunities for her daughter at colleges with gymnastics programs.

“How far is up to them, of course, but they are both strong girls, physically and emotionally” said Smieja. “They defy gravity every day with that strength.”


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