by Sue Ann Rybak
Kiah Johnson, 14, of Mt. Airy, embodies what it means to be an athlete – a passionate, dedicated team player, a gymnast who not only possesses great athletic ability but leads both in the gym and in her community.
At the state championships this year, she won third place for the all-around title in her division, which is Level 9, with a score of 37.1. She is the Level 9 state champion in the vault. Last year, she was the Level 8 vault champion.
Johnson, an eighth grader at St. Raymond of Penafort Parish School in Mt. Airy, started taking gymnastics at the Water Tower Recreation Center, 209 E. Hartwell Lane in Chestnut Hill, when she was 6 years old.
But becoming a Level 9 gymnast didn’t just happen. It required a lot of hard work and dedication. Johnson spends almost all her free time at the gym.
“What I like most about gymnastics is being able to fly on the different apparatuses,” she said. “But, I hate being sore after conditioning.”
Not only does Johnson train almost 20 hours a week, she also mentors other young gymnasts through the Water Tower’s mentoring program.
Andre Agard, head coach of the Thunder Cats Gymnastics team, said the mentoring program is modeled after the Temple University Gymnastics Program’s TU Clinic, a weekly program hosted by the men’s and women’s gymnastics team that offers children and adults a chance to learn basic gymnastic skills.
“It gives kids a chance to be invested in their own program,” he said.
Agard explained that the mentoring program is broken up into squads. He added that every mentor is responsible for three young kids.
“Their job is to show the younger kids the ropes,” he said. “If one of the younger kids has a problem learning something and they are nervous about going to a coach, they know they can go to their mentor, and their mentor will help them out. So when they graduate and leave, they are basically handing over the reins of their squad to the next person in line.”
He said often kids will come back and check on their squad to see how they are doing.
“Kids sort of look back and say, ‘Wow! She’s a mentor now? I was her mentor,’” Agard said.
Kiah, who wants to be an engineer, said being a mentor has taught her important time management skills.
“Being a mentor is important because I get to help the younger girls become good leaders and help them reach their future goals,” she said.
Currently there are approximately 185 gymnasts, aged 3-17 years old, in the program.
Agard said that when the gymnastics program first began, it was designed as a tumbling program.
“The program was never designed to be a competitive gymnastics program,” he said. “It was designed to be a tumbling program. So, kids could get a taste of gymnastics.”
The recreation center participates in the U S. Gymnastic Association’s Junior Olympic program. Young people compete in citywide competitions as beginners or intermediates. Those who are members of the intermediate and advanced competitive team learn USAG level 3 skills on vault, beam, bar and floor exercises.
Thanks to gymnastics programs at Philadelphia Recreation Centers, such as the Water Tower, thousands of youth have an opportunity to learn a sport that strengthens their whole body.
Agard said that unlike some sports that use one side of the body more than the other, gymnastics helps children stay active while increasing their flexibility, coordination, agility, balance and inner strength.
“Most private gymnastic clubs will only take a certain type of kid that has a certain type of build,” he said. “We will take any kid who is willing to try, and coach them to the best of our ability.”
He added that it’s a struggle to maintain a quality program and keep class prices affordable.
“Most private clubs will charge monthly what we charge a year,” Agard said. “So, we are always willing to accept sponsorships from anybody.”
And the Thunder Cats are no stranger to tough competition.
“We’ve had 26 state champions in the last four years of competing USGA,” Agard said. “We coach the same skill levels of all the gymnastic programs in our area. We have gone head-to-head with the best in the state and beaten them on several occasions. We don’t have as much space and available time as private clubs because we don’t own the facilities. Even though we train less hours, our team still gets quality time as opposed to quantity time.
“Our youth are always successful – whether it’s through earning medals or applying the skills they learned in our program at some other point in their lives. Gymnastics like many sports teaches kids to be consistent, focused and disciplined.”
Kiah’s mother, Nikki Johnson, attributes her daughter’s leadership skills and drive to the gymnastics program.
“Self-confidence was something we really struggled with when she started competing at a higher level,” she said. “Her coaches would try to explain how good she was. But, she just didn’t see it. While she still gets nervous at meets, I think she’s finally beginning to realize just how talented she is.”
Agard said he has no doubt Johnson will continue to soar to new heights.
“Kiah Johnson is the toughest kid that I know,” he said. “She’s like a daughter to me. She started her gymnastics career with us here at Thunder Cats Gymnastics and has not only been loyal, but also a true pioneer for our program. She’s a great teammate and a hard worker, and that’s really all any coach could ask for. The best is yet to come for this kid. I truly believe that she is destined for greatness.”
For more information about the Thunder Cats Gymnastics Team, go to www.thundercatsgymnastics.com or call 215-685-9296.