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These gymnasts are truly something special

The Santa Clarita Sharks get training from the pros at Gymnastics Unlimited for a shot at the Specia

Posted: July 30, 2009 10:30 p.m.
Updated: July 31, 2009 4:30 a.m.

Santa Clarita Sharks members Monica Monheim and Melissa Grason take a break between competition performances during the Special Olympics meet at Gymnastics Unlimited on May 31.

Special Olympics gymnastics competition came to the Santa Clarita Valley recently as three dozen athletes gathered for a regional meet at Gymnastics Unlimited in Valencia.

Seventeen of those athletes were members of the Santa Clarita Sharks, the local Special Olympics team whose gymnasts spent several months training with professional coaches at Gymnastics Unlimited to prepare for the May 31 competition.

“Watching these athletes compete after they worked so hard to train was extremely rewarding,” said Lisa Eichman, who co-owns Gymnastics Unlimited with her husband, Craig. “When they finished their routines, the smiles on their faces told the entire story.”

The crowd of friends and family got into the act, too, as some of the athletes exchanged “high fives” with audience members in celebration of the successful completion of a routine.

In addition to the Sharks, the competition at Gymnastics Unlimited included teams from Orange County, Santa Barbara and South East Los Angeles.

Special Olympics is a volunteer-based, nonprofit organization that provides year-round sports training and competition in various Olympic-style sports for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

The local organization has approximately 500 athletes enrolled in its programs, which are designed to provide the athletes with experiences that help them develop physical fitness while experiencing the joys and camaraderie of participation in athletic activities.

Here in the Santa Clarita Valley, there are an estimated 2,500 potential participants.

Participants can range in age from 8 to 80 and beyond — literally.

For the Sharks, the youngest gymnast is Dawson Washack, who is 10 and participated in artistic gymnastics.

The oldest Sharks’ gymnast is Jerry Friedman, who is 80 years old and participated in rhythmic gymnastics Level A, which is for participants who use wheelchairs or need to sit during their routines.

The other 15 Sharks who participated in the meet are female, ages 12 to 73.

At the Gymnastics Unlimited meet, five males participated in the men’s artistic events: vault, parallel bars, high bar, pommel horse, rings and floor exercise.

The female artistic events featured 23 athletes on vault, bars, balance beam and floor. Twenty females and one male participated in rhythmic gymnastics, which features hoop, ball, rope and ribbon.

For some of the gymnasts’ performances, the bonds between coaches and athletes were on display, as the coaches faced the athletes and performed the routines simultaneously, “mirroring” the athletes to help them keep track of which skill should be performed next at any given time.

“The interaction between the coaches and the athletes was terrific,” Gymnastics Unlimited co-owner Craig Eichman said. “The coaches really enjoyed working with the athletes, and they developed strong connections with them.”

Wendy Lorton, sports manager for Special Olympics in the SCV, said the training the Sharks received at Gymnastics Unlimited was top-notch, and it helped make the fourth year of the Special Olympics gymnastics program the best one yet.

“Special Olympics Santa Clarita is very grateful to Craig, Lisa and (their daughter) Shelby Eichman for offering their wonderful facility as the official training site for their gymnastics program,” Lorton said. “During the event, many coaches and parents from other areas came up to Special Olympics staff and said they wished their athlete could train in such a nice gym as Gymnastics Unlimited.”

Lorton added the gymnastics program is providing valuable opportunities that the athletes may not otherwise have.

“SCV athlete Anna Schuricht tells her story that when she was a child she use to have 60 grand mal seizures a day and could not do sports like gymnastics,” Lorton said. “Now at age 30, her seizures are controlled by medications and because of Special Olympics she is able to have the opportunity to do gymnastics.”

For information about Special Olympics Southern California, visit

Additional information about Gymnastics Unlimited is available by calling (661) 257-2GYM or visiting the gym’s Web site,



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