By JEFFREY JONES, Tribune correspondent
TAMPA, Fla. - More than 1,500 participants from all across the country will compete this weekend in the American Athletic Union Age Group National Gymnastics Championship being held today through Saturday at the Tampa Convention Center.
This will mark the first time the championship has been held in the Tampa Bay area, and the expectations for the event already have been exceeded even before the first gymnast takes the floor.
‘Last year, the meet in Minnesota hosted 800 kids, and we’ve doubled that,’ event coordinator Heather Erickson said. ‘Florida is a very strong gymnastic state.’
Erickson is also a supervisor for the City of Tampa Parks and Recreation Department, which is hosting the event.
Approximately 1,400 girls and 100 boys will compete in various individual events that will be added up into the all-around category (no team events). The age groups range up to a women’s group (18 and older).
Although there will be awards given out, the focus of the event is not on who places first, but rather on the spirit of competition itself, according to Erickson.
‘It’s more of a grass-roots event, more of a starting-off point,’ Erickson said. ‘It’s going to help them understand competition, because for many of them it’s their first real meet.’
The top three finishers in each age group will receive a gold, silver and bronze medal, respectively. The top half of each age group (beyond the first three) will also receive a copper medal.
Gymnasts from as far away as Southern California, New England and Minnesota have made the trip to Tampa to compete. The participants had to qualify in their state’s district in order to qualify for the meet.
The original destination for the event was supposed to be Disney World, but due to another engagement scheduled at the same time, Disney had to pull out, and Tampa was able to land the championship.
With the help of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, the Tampa Parks and Recreation Department was able to raise enough money to fund the event in a relatively short time. The Florida Sports Foundation awarded the event a $14,000 grant in aid, a feat due in large part because of the commission’s assistance.
‘The Tampa Bay Sports Commission helped us pull this together, and with their teamwork, everything pretty much fell into place,’ Erickson said.
Hundreds of volunteers from the Parks and Recreation Department also put in numerous hours to make the event a success.
Erickson hopes all the hard work eventually will pay off.
‘We want to set the bar in the event, and are able to host it again in the future,’ she said.