In a bid to raise awareness and have some fun, a group of high school students have taken their little-known sport to YouTube, and gained some new fans along the way. Now power tumbler Kody Priest, a student at New Paltz High School, is trying to leverage footage of he and his fellow “Waldorks” performing gravity-defying tricks at blurring speed to raise money for equipment that this team of state champions needs to remain competitive.
The Waldorks are a group of friends who went to school together at the Mountain Laurel Waldorf School, and chose their team name as an homage to the school where they were first exposed to gymnastics. To become a power tumbler — a sport which has had its own national championships since 1886 — requires a strong background in gymnastics, but the discipline focuses on jumps and flips which are executed in a straight line, rather than the square floor typical in gymnastic competitions. It’s sometimes defined as an acrobatic discipline that combines gymnastic floor work with trampolining. Both men and women compete, although all of the Waldorks are male. According to Priest, he got into power tumbling when he got bored with gymnastics; his mother Amy Louis, on the other hand, said she was hoping the competitions would teach her son humility. He’s been a consistent winner ever since, so the jury is still out on that question.
At 16 years of age, Priest is the top-ranked power tumbler in the state. Fellow Waldorks Gil Sweeney, Dante Barbera, Sebastian Mazo and Nikita Oarcea round out the top five. That’s in itself remarkable, but the team has also been self-coached since before the first time they entered the state competition. Priest explained that “we did [have a coach] the first year of practicing,” but then college called, “And since I was the better gymnast out of the bunch, I started trying to coach them,” at the age of 13. He went on to say “that turned into all of us growing a bigger understanding of what tricks should look and feel like,” and soon “they even started coaching me back until we were at the point where we could do a trick and feel whether it was correct or not.” They have also attended a camp in Pennsylvania called Woodward, which has the equipment and a staff that’s experienced enough to point them in the right direction. Priest now coaches classes himself at The Jungle in Kingston, with students ranging in age from seven to those in their 30s. He’s in it for the long haul, too: his goal is to join Cirque de Soleil.
Only Priest and Barbera have been involved in making videos thus far, and they’ve enlisted friend Eli Duncan-Gilmour to help. All three handle camera and editing work, but Duncan-Gilmour is the director, envisioning what angles and shots are needed to make the tricks visually interesting. “It’s not just spinning around in air,” he explained, although there’s certainly plenty of that going on. By not tumbling himself, Duncan-Gilmour often has an arguably more difficult job as he climbs teetering towers of mats or lies prone beneath flipping bodies as he tries to get the best shot. The resulting videos are clearly edited with skill: slow motion is employed in a manner evocative of the movie “300” to highlight a particular maneuver, for example, a shot of a hand-springing tumbler blending seamlessly into the next.
“Our friends complain that we don’t put out videos more often,” said Duncan-Gilmour, and the reason for that is the sheer amount of time they take to produce. “Every second of film needs a minute to set up,” he said.
Priest concurred. “It can take seven hours to make one video,” he said, when the setup, filming of multiple takes, editing and incorporating music is all factored in.
Power tumbling scoring, much like that for gymnastics, is mostly about keeping track of tiny errors. Points may be taken off for how the wrists or toe or pointed, or whether or not the head is tucked in during a particular trick. “There’s also things like if you take a step after the trick or not, or if you aren’t going fast enough,” Priest explained. Given the speed at which these are executed, being able to recognize and correct bad technique is a challenge for any coach of the sport, much less the judges. “I could spend hours just on deductions,” he said with a laugh.
The team has moved to new practice locations more than once, and lack one piece of specialized equipment that is used in every competition: a rod floor, the 25-meter-long spring track on which all of the tricks are performed. Priest has started a crowdfunding campaign at https://www.gofundme.com/hlp-kody-get-floor to raise money for one, the cost of which he estimates at $2,000. He hopes that practicing on one will help him achieve level ten in the sport, by mastering even more of the tricks that can be executed during each pass during the competitions. In higher levels, the rules about which tricks must be executed in each pass are relaxed, allowing the athlete more discretion. World champion tumblers will frequently perform three double somersaults in succession. The rod floor would similarly help the other Waldorks up their game, and benefit the students that Priest is coaching independently. One might hope that it will also lead to even more engaging videos than the team has already produced.
Videos of the team can be found on YouTube by entering “Waldorks” in the search box.