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Santa Clarita's gymnastics scene

Many collegiate, professional and Olympic athletes have SCV ties

Posted: January 2, 2014 10:05 p.m.
Updated: January 2, 2014 10:05 p.m.

Coach Chris Waller, right, with Kelsey Chan, left and Alicia Gallarzo at Wallers' GymJam Academy in Santa Clarita on Tuesday.

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The Santa Clarita Valley prides itself on its standard of excellence in high school sports.

And why not?

With the amount of local athletes that have gone on to achieve success at the collegiate and professional levels, it’s safe to say that the area has left impressive footprints.

But while it’s well known that the valley is a hot bed of talent for football, basketball, baseball, swimming, cross country, volleyball and softball, there are Division I and Olympic gymnasts emerging from Santa Clarita at a notable clip.

With the commitment of West Ranch senior Kelsey Chan to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on Dec. 30, the number of Santa Clarita Valley-trained athletes to commit to NCAA Division I gymnastics programs since 2012 reached 10.

“I got a text from my coach telling me to call Amy Smith (assistant coach at UNC). I was confused — I didn’t really know what that meant,” said Chan, who captured a national championship in the level 10 vault event at the 2011 Junior Olympic National Invitational Tournament (NIT). “She said she wanted to know if I wanted to be a Tar Heel, and I told her I’d love to be a Tar Heel. I was crying a little at that point, to be honest.”

One of the most successful training grounds for high school gymnasts in the area has been Wallers' GymJam Academy, run by current associate head coach of the UCLA Bruins gymnastics team Chris Waller and his wife, Cindy.

“It’s the No. 1 most watched sport during the Olympic games,” Chris said of gymnastics. “When the men’s and women’s teams have success, every little girl and every little girl’s mother wants them to do what they see these people doing.”

A former All-American gymnast at UCLA, Waller went on to compete in the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona, where he placed fifth but finished one-tenth of a point behind gold medalists Pae Gil-Su of North Korea and Vitaly Scherbo of Belarus in the pommel horse event.

Waller’s daughter, Alex, is a freshman with the Bruins. She attended Hart High and captured a national championship in the Level 10 beam event at the 2013 NIT.

Joining Alex and Chris at UCLA is Hart graduate Jessy MacArthur, another former trainee at GymJam and national champion in the level 9 vault event.

Notable pupils of Waller’s include world champion power tumbler and internationally ranked cheerleader Kiara Nowlin, Jordyn Wieber,  and 2004 Olympic team silver medalist Mohini Bhardwaj.

“It’s great being here, I can talk to him (Chris Waller) about anything, not just gymnastics. He always knows the right thing to say to motivate us,” said Alicia Galarzo, a senior at Burbank High School who trains at GymJam and who signed her letter of intent with the University of California at Berkeley two weeks ago. “Last year I sprained both my ankles. I had a hard time getting into the gym and getting motivated, and the coaches really helped me through that.”

After his last season with the U.S. National Team in 1997, Waller and his wife, Cindy, opened the first GymJam summer camps.

“We have two kids ourselves, and that’s the big reason we opened a gym starting out,” Cindy Waller said. “We wanted them to have the best training available, but we realized that once kids out here (Santa Clarita) reached a certain level, they drove out of the area and to train somewhere else.”

Now that the GymJam Academy is a fully operational training facility, talented young gymnasts are not only staying in Santa Clarita, but coming to Santa Clarita.

However, gymnastics is still under the radar in comparison to many other sports in the SCV.

“Only my close friends know that I do gymnastics,” Galarzo said. “I’m kind of a shy person, I like to keep things to myself. A few times my friends will tell people I’m the athlete and then everybody asks me.”

Both Galarzo and Waller agree that might have to do with a large absence of high school gymnastics programs in Southern California.

Additionally, Waller said the individual aspect of gymnastics might deter those more interested in team-based sports.

Luckily for prospective gymnasts, Waller said he turned down a past offer for the University of Washington head coaching position to stay committed to the UCLA program and the growth of gymnastics in the Santa Clarita Valley.

With all of the athletes leaving the SCV to pursue collegiate, professional, and Olympic careers, someone was bound to stay behind.

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