Grace Under Pressure

Over the last two decades, Excel Gymnastics has earned a reputation for, well, excellence. The Saugerties center has impressed audiences far and wide with its team performances, and it’s the headquarters for some of our area’s best young gymnasts.

Rhonda Dixon has been the owner and director of Excel Gymnastics since 1993. She’s served as a mentor to recreational and competitive gymnasts, coached teams to victory against traditionally dominant opponents and helped guide young athletes into a college career built around the endeavor.

“Some kids I’ve had with me since they were three,” said Dixon. “They become your family. We see them and spend more time than their own family, sometimes.”

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Those who compete with Excel are so dedicated, they practice between 15-20 hours a week. There are several members of the team who also compete elsewhere, including a few who are members of the Kingston High gymnastics program.

Dixon is a positive influence on the students. She expects her gymnasts to stay on top of their schoolwork.

“Most of them are straight-A students,” Dixon said. “I make sure I see their report cards. School comes first. They want to get to do gymnastics, they have to get things done in school.”

Excel is a member of USA Gymnastics, an organizing body that follows AAU Junior Olympics guidelines. The girls compete in levels rated from 4-10.

The precise connection between mind and body is crucial in gymnastics, and keeping it solid can sometimes be difficult as kids get older.

“A lot of them at around 13 or 14, they want a social life,” said Dixon.

The youngest students are also less prone to injury and less conscious of the potential for it.

“You get a little bit older, a little bit bigger and heavier, and there are injuries that can come into play,” Dixon said. “In gymnastics, it’s a lot to do with your head. A lot of kids when they reach 13, fear starts to set in.”

For many gymnasts, those first few carefree years are the best.

“You have to be six to actually compete,” said Dixon, adding that many kids begin training even earlier. “I have one little girl who started two and a half years ago in a tumble class. Her parents were very committed. She’s five years old and training level 4, and she’s doing really well.”

Excel Gymnastics is located on Route 9W a few miles north of the Hudson Valley Mall in a spacious 8,300 square-foot building. Its Olympic spring floor and state-of-the-art equipment are high caliber. For its excellent facilities and coaching talent, some young gymnasts are willing to travel a considerable distance.

“I have one girl that comes all the way from Massachusetts,” Dixon said.

The Excel Gymnastics competitive team boasts over 50 girls, including some young athletes Dixon said are just getting a taste for what it’s like.

“I’m bringing some new level 4’s for the first time,” she said about an upcoming competition in Fishkill. “They’re not quite ready, but it’s local and I just want to get their feet wet.”

Corey Chun, 8, is in the third grade at Woodstock Elementary School. But she’s already a veteran, competing at Level 7. She prefers floor routines, including a back layout, a combination of aerial moves which ends in a backflip.

“It’s really fun,” said Chun. “I like to hang with my friends and I learn a lot of new moves.”

Chun said she understands that nervousness is part of gymnastics competition, and the key is being able to get past them.

“I can be really nervous sometimes,” she said. “But then I realize it doesn’t really matter if I’m nervous. I just go out there and do my best.”

Perpetua Smith, a 13-year-old level 8 gymnast and student at Kingston Catholic School, said she never feels nervous in competition. But that’s probably because she can’t remember a time when she wasn’t involved in the sport. She said she’s been a gymnast since the age of one.

“My parents, they just thought it would be fun for me to try it, I guess,” she said.

Brooke Salvia, a 10-year-old fifth grader at Riccardi Elementary, is a level 5 gymnast with six years of experience. Her favorite exercise is the uneven bars, and she said that rather than feel fear, she thoroughly enjoys reaching the high bar.

“Gymnastics is fun and you can learn new things,” she said. “I like trying my best and making new friends.”

For some of the girls on the team, Excel Gymnastics is about more than athletics: It’s about growing up.

“It’s fun to win stuff, but it’s even fun to lose, because you know you’re supported by your friends, your family, your coaches,” said Smith. “It’s like a second family for me.”

Smith, who is at the age where Dixon said some girls find themselves stepping away from gymnastics, doesn’t see herself wanting to stop any time soon.

“When I go to high school, I hope they have a gymnastics team,” she said. “I want to compete.”

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