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COVID-19 restrictions throw Michigan gymnasts off balance

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Clinton Township — Alexis Pfeifle's high school years have been all about sacrificing to focus on gymnastics.

The 17-year-old L'Anse Creuse North honor student joined the sport as a toddler, devoting enough hours to equate to a part-time job. She's missed out on lunches with friends, social events and extra study time, all with the hope of securing her place on a college team. 

But she fears COVID-19 might wipe out her dream. 

Gymnast Sadie Dempz, 13,  works on her strength training with fellow students in the parking lot of Hunt's Gymnastics Academy in Clinton Township on Friday, July 10, 2020.

Statewide restrictions imposed to stem the spread of the virus have kept her out of the gym for months and out of view from the college scouts and coaches looking for scholarship candidates. 

"It set everything back. I can't go out there and tour the colleges and train," Pfeifle said during a recent workout with teammates in the parking lot outside Hunt's Gymnastics Academy in Clinton Township. "All of our futures have been put on hold."

The gymnastics club and others across Michigan are calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to provide clarity on when she will lift the limitations that they contend are dashing the dreams of hardworking gymnasts and crippling the industry financially and emotionally.  

Gymnastics is among the indoor activities, including karate and yoga studios, being tested financially amid the shutdown that the centers say is pushing them into debt and decimating their customer base. 

Hunt's owner, Shannon Hunt, said she's paying upwards of $25,000 a month just to cover overhead costs for her empty, 30,000-square-foot gymnastics academy.

Shannon Hunt, owner of Hunt's Gymnastics Academy, walks inside her 30,000-square-foot gym on Friday, July 10, 2020 as she waits for Governor Whitmer's order to reopen.

The federal Paycheck Protection Program and economic disaster loans she's secured are being used just to "keep us afloat," she added.

Four months after closing their doors in March, about 80 gymnastics facilities in Michigan are still waiting for the green light to reopen. Last month, 68 gymnastic center operators sent letters to Whitmer, stressing protocols are ready and pleading for an immediate restart. So far, the governor's office has remained silent, Hunt said. 

"My kids deserve somebody to fight for them right now," she said. "If we had information, we'd be more understanding. If you look at our business, compared to the businesses that have already been open, there's no explanation for keeping us closed."

Whitmer's guidance sought 

Whitmer in May rolled out MI Safe Start Plan, a six-step guide for the gradual reopening of the state amid the pandemic.

The governor hoped to advance Lower Michigan to Phase 5 in July, which would have allowed for reopening facilities including gyms and movie theaters. But an uptick in daily cases and clusters of outbreaks slowed progress, prompting Whitmer to warn that Michigan might "dial back."

Gymnast Valerie Silich, 12, uses a medicine ball with fellow students in the parking lot of Hunt's Gymnastics Academy in Clinton Township on Friday, July 10, 2020.

The League of Independent Fitness Facilities and Trainers Inc. and a group of 22 companies operating gyms filed legal action in May, arguing Whitmer's emergency orders have unfairly kept them closed while allowing strip clubs, hookah lounges, massage parlors and hair salons to reopen.

A federal judge granted a preliminary injunction in June that would have allowed gyms to reopen. But a 6th Circuit U.S. Appeals Court panel approved a request from the state to keep them closed. 

The governor's office has received correspondence from concerned gym owners and "is taking all inquiries very seriously," said Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown, noting indoor gyms, fitness and recreation centers and exercise studios "are closed to ingress, egress, occupancy or use to members of the public."

"Gov. Whitmer is continuing to monitor cases and make decisions based on the best data and science," Brown said in a statement. "As she has said all along, she will adjust as necessary when it comes to reengaging Michigan’s economy safely.”

Karate, yoga studios hit

Five-time World Sport Karate/Kickboxing Champion Askia Allison was planning to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of his Livonia martial arts studio this year. Instead, COVID-19 wiped out half of his business and put him about $20,000 behind in rent. 

The studio began offering online classes several months back and transitioned to practices in its back parking lot in late June, he said. 

John Allison (left), of Metro United Karate, teaches students high kicks during an outdoor session in the parking lot of the Livonia business on July 22, 2020.

"It's been a dire challenging time," said Allison, a former Detroit and Highland Park police officer who operates a kickboxing gym in the same shopping center. "This has been my passion since I was a child. I took a leap of faith. This was going great prior to the pandemic."

The Detroit resident applied for grant assistance but said he hasn't been awarded any. The gym had about 100 participants before the outbreak. Some of the remaining students, he said, haven't canceled but aren't paying their bills either. 

Allison has a daycare license and is operating a summer camp, but participation is down from the typical average of 30 children to seven. Even so, Allison's focus is "safety first" and he supports Whitmer's decision.

"I'm not upset. This can affect the families and community that we service," he said. "It's a tough decision that our government had to make. I support it."

EnSoul Yoga in Ferndale lost half its clients in the first month after COVID-19 cases were first detected March 10. But the studio managed to keep a virtual following by offering daily classes for its new and remaining members through a private Facebook group, owner Caren "Paskel" Prentice said.

She also caught a break from her landlord who cut the rent in half during the crisis. Still, the yoga studio has at least $5,000 in monthly bills to cover and is just about breaking even with the funds that do come in, said Prentice, 43.  

"I'm hanging in there by a thread," she said. "Without knowing a date that we might be able to reopen, it's quite difficult."

Adding to the strain, Prentice's husband, David, 30, a real estate agent who also has been out of work due to COVID-19, was diagnosed with incurable, stage-four brain cancer just before the pandemic. 

Prentice noted studios in other states have opened already with precautions. She argues there's a safe way to do it here, too. 

"If the government continues to keep us shut down, I would be forced into bankruptcy," she said. "It's very hard to stay in business with a closure this long."

Moving outdoors

Claudia and Ed Kretschmer of Gym America in Ann Arbor began training their gymnasts outdoors in small groups a few weeks ago, incorporating monkey bars at neighborhood parks for tap swings, leg lifts and chin-ups. 

Coaches are wearing masks while spotting, sanitizing their hands and requiring the  athletes to be spaced apart, Claudia Kretschmer said.

The Kretschmers have been in business for 40 years and operate a $2 million facility with 50 employees and more than 1,000 gymnasts. 

Gymnast Sophia Schneider, 14, participates in conditioning and strength training sessions in the parking lot of Hunt's Gymnastics Academy in Clinton Township on Friday, July 10, 2020.

Over the last few months, they've had no income but were awarded loan funding to help pay their $20,000-a-month mortgage. That's on top of other costs associated with the 19,000-square-foot building and a $47,000 property tax bill, Claudia Krestschmer said. 

When the couple starts back up, they'll be in the hole for $250,000 in credits prepaid by athletes on the competitive team. Many gyms across the state "are in the same boat," she noted, and it could take a couple of years to financially level out. 

At this point, she added, 30 of Gym America's 100 team members have decided not to continue.

"We're not a business that has drive-thru services. You can't teach gymnastics that way," she said. "I will do everything in my power to keep this building standing."

Kretschmer said the gyms need some type of guidance from Whitmer. 

"She has a hard job, but we need answers," she said. "We want everybody in our sport to survive this."

The virus cut this year's competitive gymnastics season short, affecting meet hosts and athletes hoping to qualify for regional or national competitions where they are scouted, said Beckey Burden, the state's administrative committee chair for USA Gymnastics.

Michigan, she said, has 84 member clubs with about 550 coaches and judges and 4,000 competitive athletes — and upwards of 30,000 other children in the state participate in recreational gymnastics. 

 At this point, Burden said, there's no indication that the state's competitive season will be called off. But the competitions might cost more to help offset the lack of revenue.

"We're planning state championship meets as a go," she said. "We are in close contact with the meet hosts. They feel they have support."

Burden also operates Water's Edge Gymnastics in Traverse City. The northern Michigan gym was one of few Upper Peninsula centers permitted to open in mid-June. 

"However, some people are leery about coming back," she said. "The feedback we're getting is 'we're waiting.'"

The abrupt end to practice has been difficult for Katie Hertza's two daughters. Quinn, 8, and Allyson, 11. Both attend Euro Stars Gymnastics in Plymouth. 

The lack of the activity that she loves has been particularly hard on Allyson, Hertza said.

"Gymnastics is truly a part of her identity and what gives her confidence and a sense of self," said Hertza, 38, of Northville. "It helps her learn how to speak up for what she needs, how to set goals and how to believe in herself."

Hunt said clubs in the neighboring states of Ohio, Illinois and Indiana have resumed training. Two gymnasts on the gym's 83-member competitive team are slated to enter their senior year of high school this fall and have verbal commitments for full-ride scholarships.

Alyssa Guns, 17, of Royal Oak, committed to attend Kent State University in Ohio. Marisa Aiello, 17, of Chesterfield Township, was picked up for the University of Pittsburgh team when she was a high school freshman. 

If gymnasts are not training and ready to go in November, colleges have a right not to sign them, Hunt noted. 

"That's a scary thought," said Hunt, adding the gym has been in contact monthly with both of the girls' universities, "letting them know we're doing everything we can to keep them in shape and mentally strong."

Aiello said also talks regularly with future teammates in other parts of the country who, unlike her, have returned to training. 

"That's the most stressful part," she said. "We are determined to get back in there."