Local Gyms Persevere Amid Pandemic

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“Our kids gain so much from being in the gym. They are developing strength, coordination and learning how to push their bodies to achieve their goals, all of  which are important for their development, but there are so many other things that they are learning as well,” Amanda Cunningham, co-owner of Hilltop Elite Academy of Tumbling and Trampoline, Inc., stated. “Our students learn so much more than just skills. We have athletes who are close friends that are competing against each other. They have to learn that everyone has their day and how to support each other even when things don’t go the way they want them to. That is hard, but it is also a mentality that will serve them throughout life and if I am honest, that matters more to me than any athletic skill they ever develop.”

The athletes at Hilltop Elite Academy of Tumbling and Trampoline, Inc., in Hillsboro and the Midwest Royals All Stars in Litchfield are learning grit and perseverance as they watch their coaches navigate tumultuous obstacles to keep their gyms open amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and ever-shifting state-wide regulations put in place to curb the spread of the Coronavirus.

“When everything happened last March, everyone (all businesses) had to shut down and I just kept thinking, okay, 14 days and we are going to be back at it, this is going to be fine,” said Jenny Fergurson, owner of the Midwest Royals All Stars Cheer Gym. “We had just gotten our summit bids and two of our elite teams, our senior team the Regulators and our junior team Girl Fight, had qualified to compete at the D2-Summit at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in May (2020). It was a big deal and the first time that we were competing in these big, end of season events. So, I really tried to stay positive and keep my athletes’ hope alive but we ended up being shut for months. It was awful.”

Jenny Fergurson took ownership of the Litchfield-based cheer gym in January 2020. The Midwest Royals gym is a US All Star Federation (USASF) gym and home to around 42 athletes and four competitive teams. Fergurson was approved for a PPP (Paycheck Protection Program) loan to help pay her coaches throughout the gym’s mandated closure, allowing her to retain them until she was able to reopen. She also had the foresight to have saved everything she had made during her few months of ownership, giving her a much needed safety net during the closure.

The owners of the Hilltop Elite Academy of Tumbling and Trampoline, Inc., Amanda and Ben Cunningham and Heather and Dustin Greenwood, also found themselves applying for relief in the form of loans and grants from the SBA (Small Business Association) and dipping into their business savings to stay afloat during the mandated closure. 

“It was difficult because we had a big competition coming up and even one day out of the gym can be a major setback,” Cunningham explained. “We were closed for months. It was really stressful because we are a relatively new business and we have a lot of overhead. We have a loan for the building, we have a loan for the equipment and within a year of purchasing our building we discovered a severe issue with the roof - water was pouring in and ruining the equipment -  requiring us to take out another loan to replace the roof. We also had to worry about paying our employees, none of which we can afford to lose because coaching competitive tumbling is a highly specialized skill. We had been putting money aside to update some of our equipment, which we were able to use to sustain ourselves during the closure. We are grateful that we had the safety net, but it is bittersweet because we no longer have that money for equipment.”

As spring turned into summer with no end to the pandemic in sight, the owners of Hilltop Elite and the Midwest Royals gyms began to look at ways to safely reopen within the state’s tiered guidelines. In normal years, Hilltop Elite has around 180 kids rotate through the gym in a week. Student athletes from throughout Montgomery, Bond and Fayette counties travel to take the gymnastics, trampoline and double mini classes offered at the Hillsboro-based gym. 

“It came to a point where we knew if we didn’t reopen we would be closing our doors forever,” Cunningham admitted. “Things had started to open back  up so Heather, Ben, Dustin and I started looking at the guidelines and working out a plan that would keep our athletes and our coaches as safe as possible, while allowing them to be in the gym again.” 

Hilltop Elite slowly reopened in June 2020 by offering one-on-one lessons that parents could sign up for online. While happy to have their athletes back in the gym, reopening brought new needs and new fears.

“We created an entire online system where parents could sign up their athletes for private lessons with a coach. We had to create COVID waivers and request that our coaches be masked, take on disinfecting the gym between lessons and retain a six foot distance from the athletes. Social distancing means that our coaches can’t spot any of our athletes and that in itself increases their risk of serious injury and hinders their ability to learn new skills.” 

As the state tentatively broadened the shutdown regulations, Hilltop Elite was able to offer classes of up to ten athletes with CDC recommended guidelines in place. Eventually as the state moved to the next phase of reopening, Hilltop Elite was able to return to their usual class size with modifications to inhibit interaction between different groups of classes and shortened classes to allow more time to disinfect the gym between groups of athletes.

Also closed down for months, Fergurson began to look for ways to safely allow athletes back into the gym.

“When I decided to reopen I knew that it would just be for our competitive athletes because I couldn’t open to the capacity of including our recreational kids as well,” Fergurson explained.

Even opening to partial capacity came with its own set of complications. Each year the Midwest Royals hold tryouts for their competitive cheerleading teams, drawing athletes from throughout Montgomery County, Staunton, Gillespie, Carlinville and even St. Louis, MO, but with the pandemic spreading in-person tryouts were out of the question.

 “Tryouts were definitely different this year,” Fergurson said with a laugh. “We were able to place our returning athletes on a team because we knew their skill level, and we opted to do Zoom tryouts for new kids. We told them what we wanted to see, made sure that they had a safe place where they could show us their tumbling skills and jumps, and then we hunkered down at our computers for about four to five hours to hold virtual tryouts.”

After tryouts the Midwest Royal cheer teams started easing their way back into the gym with safety precautions in place. As the state’s guidelines changed the Litchfield-based gym began slowly allowing their recreational students back into the space. Safely introducing athletes back into the gyms was only one obstacle, both gyms now find themselves navigating their teams’ competition season amid the ongoing pandemic and differing state-to-state regulations.

“Adapting is our favorite word this year,” Fergurson stated. “I keep telling my team parents that we are just going to keep adapting to whatever comes our way and make the best of it. If we can get through this year, we can do anything.”   

In a normal year, the Midwest Royals competitive cheer teams attend ten competitions each season, starting in November. With many of their usual competitions cancelled, Fergurson has been working overtime to find chances for the Royals teams to compete, and most have been out-of-state.

The teams have found that more than the geographical locations have changed, as each competition is set up to follow the regulations of the city or state they are being held in. At their first competition of the year, in Indiana, each team was given a specific session, with eight to ten teams competing per session. All athletes were required to be masked with the exception of their time on the mat. Parents too have found the competitions eerily waning from years past, with socially distanced seating and spectator restrictions firmly in place. Even awards are somber affairs, with only one masked athlete allowed to accept their hard-earned trophies on behalf of the team. Fergurson stated that several event producers have opted to hold virtual competitions this year, where each team has a week to make a video and submit it to be judged.

“It has been really tough for Heather and I, because we don’t want our team students or families to get ill, and if we go to these events and someone brings the virus back into the gym we are shut down again,” Cunningham stated. “Every August Heather and I attend the state meeting where gyms get permission to vie for the weekends that they want to host meets. Everyone votes and we get a schedule to help us plan out our competition season. That has all been very different this season. Usually meets are held at school gyms but schools aren’t renting out their gyms right now so a lot of the meets we would normally attend have been cancelled.”

Cunningham explained that in a normal year Hilltop Elite’s team athletes attend at least one weekend-long meet a month from October through April, where they compete in tumbling, trampoline and double-mini. In order to qualify for nationals, the athletes are required to receive a qualifying score at lesser meets including the State  Competition in April, an overwhelming obstacle when many gyms are no longer holding small meets. Even the few meets that the gym has been able to attend are subject to the USTA (United State Tumbling Association) and sanctions deeming them “qualifying meets” can be taken away if their guidelines fall outside of the state’s shifting “Reopening Illinois” regulations - as happened at a meet the Hilltop athletes attended in Bellville last fall.

Even amid the setbacks, Cunningham and Greenwood are finding ways to keep their athletes morale up. In November, instead of attending a competition, they brought in coaches from other gyms and held a clinic. Athletes signed up to attend the clinic in small groups based on their skill level and got to spend time training and mastering new skills.

The Hilltop Elite and Midwest Royals gyms have found themselves not only adapting through the pandemic but finding new opportunities to grow as well, both as a gym family and as area businesses. Fergurson recently decided to take a leap and open the MWR Wrestling Academy, a long time goal in her vision to expand the Midwest Royal’s gym. The Wrestling Academy officially opened on Monday, March 1, to a limited number of athletes. The program is coached by long-time MWR gym dad, Chance Davidson, and is open to boys and girls in the first through 12th grades, of all skill levels.   

“It was stuck in my head that wrestling was something we could eventually add when we have a bigger space. It was always a future goal, until the thought struck me that there are times the gym is empty could be utilized for wrestling now. My bigger picture is still to have a space for weights and rope climbing, where wrestling and cheer classes could be running simultaneously, but I realized that there is no reason that we can’t start small. There is no reason that we can’t do it now,” Fergurson explained. “That is what I hope our athletes learn from this experience, that they always have the ability to make positive moves forward even when the circumstances around them feel out of their control and the reality they are living in isn’t the picture they had in their heads.”

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