Tumbling Teenager

A day in the life of Nikki Packard isn’t that different from the usual agendas of her classmates at Santa Fe High School. The sixteen-year-old struggles with learning to drive and getting perfect grades, and she laughs off the inevitable question about potential boyfriends. But Google Nikki Packard’s name and a surprising number of gymnastic-related sites appear with photos of trophy-laden teenagers.

Although Packard moved to Edmond less than two months ago, she hasn’t wasted any time in getting involved with locally owned Oklahoma Gold Gymnastics. After arriving here from San Antonio, however, the lack of available facilities for the sport became strikingly apparent, as not a single Edmond school hosts a gymnastics team due to insurance reasons.

Rather than attending the standard, four-weekly practices, she now goes to tumbling class once a week. The possibility for statewide competition is strictly limited at her level of proficiency, an activity that’s been central to her professional development since competitions began in the first grade.

A May event had already taken her former team to Poland to represent the U.S., where her trio placed fourth at the international meet, and she won a silver medal at this year’s nationals in July.

Thoroughly impressed with the trio’s ten-day stay in Poland, Packard described her first visit away from home and the fourth-prize certificate of achievement as “cool,” although exact translation of the document remains something of a mystery.

Packard’s interest in gymnastics started at age three with a fundamentals class at a Delaware YMCA, which she promptly outgrew with an impressive array of skills.

“She was climbing all over and jumping off my furniture,” said stay-at-home-mom, Karey Packard. “We finally found something where that sort of behavior was encouraged.”

Another family move landed the Packards in Texas where Packard began training at Brown’s Gym in San Antonio under the direction of legendary Russian coach, Vladimir Artemov, the 1988 gold medallist.

However, rather than pursuing similar Olympic dreams, Packard dedicated herself to a form of gymnastics not yet included in the famed competition. Acrobatic gymnastics, commonly called “acro” for short, consists of floor routines commonly performed in pairs and trios. Without vaults, bars, or beams, acro relies on ballet-like moves and complex pyramid balances.

While artistic gymnastics is what normally draws audiences to the Olympic coverage and ESPN specials, acro has been growing in spectator awareness, particularly in other countries. Rumors of it being included in the 2008 Olympics are reported by USA Gymnastics, which describes itself as “the governing body for the sport of the gymnastics in the United States.” The formerly unheard of subspecialty recently gained media attention with an August performance on the highly rated NBC show, “America’s Got Talent,” with Arthur Davis and Shenea Booth.

“It gives the kids who are afraid of beams, or can’t do the bars, or who have a flexibility issue the chance to get back into gymnastics or stay in it if they want to keep physically fit,” said her mom, Karey.
“It’s basically throws, catches, and dance,” added Packard.

Nikki Packard’s dad, Craig, brought the family of five to Edmond, given the city’s proximity to the Tinker base where he serves in the U.S Air Force. Their frequent relocations from state-to-state have hardly hindered Packard’s progress, but for the first time, the athlete is now left without an acro team. Although Steve Hoehner, owner of Oklahoma Gold Gymnastics, has expressed interest in helping Packard start a local division, an expert coach with acro certification and other dedicated kids would have to come first.

Packard has admittedly suffered knee and ankle injuries from the combined effects of years of practice and now attends physical therapy three times a week. However, not all willing participants would have to present a similar training record to become involved in acro. A basic knowledge of gymnastics would suffice for those interested.

“The rest is teachable,” said Packard, who explained that age five is the minimum to compete nationally, while gymnasts have to be at least ten to qualify for international ranks.

The shy, jean-clad teen somehow bears only a slight resemblance to the professional photos taken of her at competition in which she wears a red, white, and blue leotard. Hair pulled back neatly in a bun, she arches her back into a bridge to support the weight of two other girls delicately balanced on top, each concentrated but smiling. That identity suits her, and she seems suddenly confident, even powerful, in the glossy images. Any sign of stress or apprehension has faded into focused calm, and competition jitters don’t show in the pictures.

“It’s fun, it’s a great experience,” said Packard, although she conceded that the last thirty seconds before a competition do make her nervous.

Whether or not she’ll have the opportunity to work her way back up to competing partly depends on what happens during the time Nikki will be living in Edmond.

“I’d like to possibly compete at a high level and take it international again,” she said.

Packard also expressed interest in coaching acro as well as other gymnastic disciplines, although she ultimately plans to study English Education to become an elementary school teacher.

For more information about gymnastic programs in Edmond, contact Oklahoma Gold Gymnastics at 341-1175.

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