By Will Johnson
Messenger Reporter

GRAPELAND – When people on the outside of the pine curtain talk about Grapeland, the first things mentioned may be peanuts or watermelons. Athletics may come up during the course of conversation but if and when it does, it usually centers on football, basketball, baseball/softball or golf.

While the sport of gymnastics is usually not thought of when discussing the Queen City of the Sand Flats, a group of young ladies from Elite Fitness has set out to change that dynamic. And, if last weekend’s performance at the 2017 XCEL South State Bronze and Silver gymnastics competition is any indication, folks might want to brush up on what a flight series is. (It’s a series of acrobatic skills performed in combination from one end of a balance beam to the other.)

The team, under the direction of Head Coach Chris Conner and Assistant Coach Nellie Baker, traveled to San Antonio for the gymnastics competition on April 29 and 30 and brought home quite a bit of hardware. Comprised of Aubrey Baker, Alexi Guitz, Sydnie Howell, Jemma James and Rylee Wilson, the team won the all-around championship and placed first in every single team event.

The team scored a combined 115.6 and was based on a combination of points awarded in the vault, the uneven parallel bars, the balance beam and the floor exercise. The Elite team scored 29.475 in the vault, 28.625 on the uneven parallel bars, 28.525 on the balance beam and 28.975 in the floor exercise.

Individually, the South State Team Champions were led by All-around champions Aubrey and Jemma. Aubrey scored a 9.725 on the vault, a 9.6 on the uneven parallel bars, a 9.675 on the balance beam and a 9.75 in the floor exercise.

Jemma scored a 9.7 on the vault, a 9.5 on the uneven parallel bars, a 9.55 on the balance beam and a 9.65 in the floor exercise.

Alexi and Rylee were awarded silver medals in the All-around. Alexi scored a 9.925 on the vault, a 9.65 on the uneven parallel bars, a 9.65 on the balance beam and a 9.7 in the floor exercise.

Rylee scored a 9.85 on the vault, a 9.6 on the uneven parallel bars, a 9.275 on the balance beam and a 9.625 in the floor exercise.

Sydnie captured fifth place in the All-around. She scored a 9.65 on the vault, a 9.15 on the uneven parallel bars, a 9.325 on the balance beam and a 9.45 in the floor exercise.

Coach Chris Conner said the five young ladies have bright futures ahead of them in the world of gymnastics and she would know. A full-time teacher at Northside Primary in Palestine, Conner has over 30 years of gymnastics coaching experience.

“I’ve had kids on the Junior National and Senior National teams through USA Gymnastics. I also have kids on the University of Oklahoma team, the University of Alabama team and the Baylor acro-tumbling team. My athletes at Baylor just won their third championship in acro-tumbling. My most dear gymnast is at OU and they just repeated as the national champs,” Conner said.

When she first heard about the Elite Fitness gymnastics program, Conner said she was “… really shocked! I thought the nearest place would be either in Tyler or in Conroe.”

Conner said she had spent several years working under the guidance of Bela and Martha Karolyi and has incorporated the training methods she learned from the famed gymnastic coaches into her own training program.

While somewhat tough, Conner said the parents and students have accepted the training regimen.

“It took them a little while to get used to the training method, but they came around and they’re doing well. Their parents have accepted that we have to put in a lot of time to train in order to get the success we had over the weekend,” she said.

“The kids are very accepting. You just have to present it in a way that works for you and your club,” Conner explained. “The parents are the same way. You just have to have open communication with them. I believe if you let them know what the goal is, what you have to do to get to that goal, the things you have to strive for in the training – and the time it takes – they are receptive to coming here in order to reach that goal.”

After three years at Elite Fitness, Conner said she has no plans of leaving the gym any time soon and hopes to travel to Florida in the near future to compete at other top-echelon events.

“Elite Fitness is like family, it’s a wonderful gym with great kids. Melissa and Chuck (Cobb) – the owners – are awesome people and I truly enjoy coaching the kids here in Grapeland,” she said.

Will Johnson may be reached via e-mail at wjohnson@messenger-news.com.