Story and photo - By JANE WHITE - The Billings Outpost
Emma and Katelyn, two little 8- and 9-year-old girls, blond ponytails swinging and fancy barrettes glinting in the sunlight, impatiently pace and prance in the queue with mother Kelley Anderson, awaiting star gymnast Olga Korbut’s autograph at the Big Sky State Games opening ceremonies at Daylis Stadium.
“They didn’t want to come meet Olga Korbut; they are only 8 and 9 years old, and I was 8 when I saw Olga perform at the Olympics in the ’70s - I wanted to come see Olga!” Ms. Anderson says. Encouraging her girls in sport, Ms. Anderson drives them to Billings YMCA swim practice and meets to compete with their team, The Seahawks. It is their first year.
“I love racing against my teammates and other kids,” says Katelyn. “It is so exciting and fun at the meets!”
“I saw Michael Phelps win at the Olympics in Omaha,” chirps Emma.
Engrossed in swimming, the girls describe how they went to Omaha, Neb., to deliver beef with their father and uncle and took a side trip to view the Olympic Trials in swimming. Well familiar with competition, the girls describe their experiences with disqualification, or DQ.
“I got a DQ when I did my flip turn too fast,” says Katelyn. “I was sad and mad and upset with myself because I knew I could do better.”
Emma agrees: “I got one for the butterfly.” On behalf of Emma, Ms. Anderson explains, “Instead of one fluid motion for the butterfly stroke, she had two.”
When asked if muscle control at age 8 is too much to ask of a child competitor, Mrs. Anderson responds, “They need to learn to do things the right way. When they experience a DQ, they learn better.”
Finally, they ask Ms. Korbut to sign their Big Sky State Games brochures and talk with the famous gymnast about the immense legacy she has left to gymnastics, her revered work ethic and her lust for the challenge of competition. They grin and pose together for a picture. Ms. Korbut smiles broadly.
Tan and firm, with a light blonde bobbed hairdo and eyelids enhanced with a shimmery beige eye shadow and lots of mascara, Ms. Korbut greets everyone with a sense of hope and promise that seems to emerge from her ability to get results by engaging in hard and even painful work, day after day, to make it to the top of a sport.
“I don’t like quitters – NEVER QUIT!” she declares during her speech before lighting the Big Sky State Games torch, a huge iron structure that looks like an upside down satellite. “WIN – This is what competition is all about!” she repeats emphatically to a cheering, applauding audience.
Weaving through the crowd in a tight white shirt, with plenty of flashy jewelry and bright red pants, Ms. Korbut responds with grace and a wide, white smile to the adoring gymnasts and other athletes who constantly tap her on the shoulder and queue up to talk with her and request her autograph.
Several times during the ceremonies, Ms. Korbut can be seen signing autographs impromptu on the backs of young athletes and also at autograph stations guarded by red T-shirt clad volunteers for the Games, 2,000 of them in total.
In her torch-lighting speech, Ms. Korbut proclaims her love of her sport and of every athlete’s need to be tenacious in both practice and competition.
“This is my first time in Montana at the wonderful Big Sky State Games,” she says. “I have enjoyed every minute of it. My advice to you is never put off doing until tomorrow what you can do today. I worked for 10 years, 365 days a year, six to 10 hours a day. DO NOT QUIT!”
Off to the left on Wendy’s Field, male and female gymnasts flip, somersault and twist, propelling themselves either off a small round trampoline or a thickly padded mat.
“Ask me why I went into gymnastics,” says Tom Streets, co-owner of the Billings Gymnastics School. His answer: “To meet women - I knew what was on the other side of the wall ...” he says, referring to a physical education class he had in high school.
“There, he met me!” exclaims his wife, Kerry Streets, the other co-owner of the business. When asked about why men love gymnastics, Mr. Streets says, “Makes ‘em ripped as hell.” Observing the young blond Adonises flipping and twisting in the air, their sinewy legs and six-pack abs easily absorbing the intense exertion of gymnastics, that statement appears to be true.
On the other hand, the female gymnasts flip, somersault and vault into the air, showing off their lithe forms in leopard print, bright tiger stripes, cool blue shirts and aqua green shorts. Some of the gymnasts’ outfits reveal flesh through flower cut-outs exposing their backs and torsos. And one performs in a completely black unitard.
Half of the gymnasts are males, who frequently join gymnastics classes to improve their sense of spatial awareness.
“Spatial awareness is knowing where you are in relation to everyone else around you, and where everyone else is in relation to you,” explains Kerry Streets. An enhanced sense of spatial awareness helps football players avoid tackles and helps baseball players throw the ball to the correct target on the diamond.
“The real reason I got into gymnastics was to play baseball and football better,” later admits Tom Streets, “but hey, I’m glad I met my wife there.” Kerry Streets glows.
One of their coaches, Dennis Berry, elaborates on the edge gymnasts may have over other athletes. “It’s the requirement to overcome disorientation caused by spinning and flying into the air that makes them have better spatial awareness,” says Berry, an ex-college gymnast who has competed in various gymnastics venues, most recently in Seattle, specializing in the rings. He describes some of the differences between male and female gymnasts at various stages of their careers.
“Boys are more willing to try different stuff, in general, than girls are, early on. Girls are more willing to try new things until about age 13; then they get more concerned about injury.” Adds Ms. Streets: “Fear kicks in at 13.”
But many gymnasts start out very early, even as young as 18 months. “We have ‘Mommy and Me’ classes at BGS, which help infants climb, develop balance and roll over,” says Kerry Streets. “The most important thing gymnastics does,” she says, “is to develop the synapses between the right and left sides of the brain – when little kids crave spinning, love to be dizzy, they are seeking to develop those synapses. The necessity to overcome the dizziness is what connects those synapses. Then, when they turn into adults, they hate spinning, because the synapses are already developed.”
Both of the Streets have noticed big changes in their clientele. Within the last decade, they say, many more obese children have entered their classes.
“I have seen lots more overweight kids in the past 10 years,” says Tom Streets. “What we do is make exercise fun – if it’s fun, you’ll do it!”
Plenty of other athletes at the opening ceremonies were doing just that: having fun. All of Montana’s 56 counties were represented in one type of event or another, whether Tae Kwon Do, table tennis, swimming, softball, soccer, shooting, ice hockey, fencing, figure skating, cycling, archery or some other sport.
The dancers on the Kansas State Cheer Team with “Herders” emblazoned on their chests especially have fun. Four big guys in black and one well-muscled young woman in black appear on the field in front of the track.
Other Herders appear in navy and cobalt blue uniforms to complete the dance team. Performing high up in the air on top of other Herders, they spin the aerialist up into the air right before dropping her 10 feet down into the arms of waiting team members.
They rig their elbows, wrists and knees so that about a dozen of them all move as a single unit across the field, illustrating the unity that dance sport encourages.
When Olga Korbut receives the torch, she runs down the stairs from the podium, rounds the curve of the track and ascends the stairs to light the big torch, demonstrating that she is still the Olympic gift from Belarus, promoting the passion of sport for little girls and adults alike.