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HIGH SCHOOL GYMNASTICS

In Needham High gym, paying it forward

Needham High School gymnast Leah Miller competes on the beam during a meet against Wellesley High School Jan 24.  The school’s gymnasts take time every winter teaching children about the sport.
Needham High School gymnast Leah Miller competes on the beam during a meet against Wellesley High School Jan 24. The school’s gymnasts take time every winter teaching children about the sport.Justin Saglio

There’s an unusual amount of activity taking place inside Needham High School Saturday mornings. Starting at 9 a.m., kids from preschool age up to seniors at the school trickle into the gym. Despite five previous days of early wakeup calls, there’s quite a bit of energy inside.

For 25 years, the Needham gymnastics squad has put on a six-week workshop for the community during its season. The squad helps run five separate 45-minute sessions with youngsters as young as preschool up to an advanced class for fifth- and sixth-graders.

With such longevity behind the program, some of the current members of the high school team can say they were part of the program when they were younger, and now have the privilege of paying it forward and becoming instructors themselves.

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“At the beginning of the season,” said Needham coach Abby Watt. “We always ask when we introduce the program . . . how many took part in it, and between half and two-thirds of the [team members’] hands go up. They’re all excited to now be teachers having done it at some point in their youth.”

Maddie Aswad, 16, is among the participants-turned-instructors, but the junior has another special tie to the program: her sister Lucy, 10, is now among its students.

The two compete in the same private gymnastics group, but the Saturday workshops put elder Aswad in a different role.

At their gymanstics club, said the elder Aswad, “I’m watching her do these things and I’m thinking of corrections I can give her, but there she won’t listen to me. But here I’m one of the coaches for her, and she actually listens to me here, so I’m able to help her become better.”

In Needham, a community of just under 30,000, the gymnastics community is like a small town within a small town. So taking part in the yearly tutoring sessions gives the instructors a certain local prestige.

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“I love it,” said Olivia Curran, a senior at the school. “I see a lot of the kids that I coach [around] Needham and they’re so excited to see you. . . . You’re an adult in their life, you do gymnastics, you do things they want to learn how to do, so they look up to you so much. They’re so excited to say hi and I’m always so excited to say hi to them too because you really form that connection with them.”

Maddie Aswad knows that feeling. In 2015, her first year as an instructor, she recalled, “On the last day all of the kids were coming up to me, giving me these cards and saying how helpful I’ve been and how much they had appreciated what I had done in their life.

“And now being a junior . . . I see some of them still come here now that they’re older, and I can see how much they’ve improved and how much they’ve learned.”

Those most familiar with gymnastics describe it as a remarkably demading sport, both physically and mentally. The total body strength required to perform is on par with the most physically demanding of sports. The emphasis on individual performance,too, can add to what’s already a major test of mental fortitude as well.

Introducing a four-year-old to those challenges — albeit at a much more elementary level than in high school — can be a daunting challege. That’s where the high schoolers’ experience kicks in.

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“You’ve gone through it,” said Curran. “You’ve had mental blocks, you’ve been scared to do things, but now you’re the one telling the kids that they can do it themselves.

“I think that’s huge because you know how much your coaches had an impact on you, and I think being able to say, ‘just believe in yourself, you can do it, trust your body,’ that’s huge for a little kid.”

“When I was little and doing the workshops,’’ said Aswad, “I really looked up to the high school [gymnasts] and all that they did and all that they helped me with. And now I’m able to help them, and I hope they’re looking up to me as much as I did.”

Saturdays are precious for most high school students. They provide a chance to get some extra sleep, make some money at a job, or study up for the SATs. But despite all the other things the Needham gymnasts could be doing, helping to grow the community around their sport feels far from an obligation to them.

“I think it’s more of an activity that I’m interested in doing,” said Curran. “ . . . Being able to show kids that they’re able to do it and that they can have that confidence and the physical ability to is just — I don’t know — it’s hard to explain.”

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She paused for a moment, then continued.

“It’s unbelievable seeing them improve, and seeing them be happy with themselves and proud of themselves and proud of what they can do.

“It gives you such a nice feeling as a coach.”


Logan Mullen can be reached at logan.mullen@globe.com.