After shutdowns and scandal, Olympics symbolize new chapter for Michigan gymnastics
Sariya Tejani crouched low on the mat, cueing up for her big event.
She launched skyward, bare feet anchoring on the wooden bar at Troy Gym where she practiced her routine. She was steady. She was determined. She sparkled with resolve like she sparkled in her leotard.
The 7-year-old was doing "squat ons" to prepare for the uneven bars she someday will encounter as a competitive gymnast. Though her destination was not far above the mat, Tejani approached it seriously.
She is preparing to take the gold like the athletes she sees on TV, after all.
The 2021 Olympics have inspired Sariya and countless young Michigan gymnasts, serving as a bright spot for the gymnastics community after a challenging five years of shutdowns and scandal.
"As a business and coaches we look forward to it every four years," said Shannon Hunt, owner of Hunts Gymnastics Academy in Clinton Township. "It's definitely a breath of fresh air. And coming off of our last five years, not only in the state of Michigan but in the gymnastics culture, the excitement and the forward movement and just seeing the girls doing so well, it's just really motivating the students."
That enthusiasm boosts gym membership, a relief to gym owners who went most of a year with limited or no revenue because of coronavirus restrictions.
Gyms were shut down for six months in much of lower Michigan because of state-issued coronavirus lockdowns that put fitness studios among the last businesses to reopen. Pools and gyms could resume business at a limited scale in September.
The shutdown caused a financial "bloodbath" like nothing Toby Buechner, Troy Gym owner, had ever seen. He, his wife and his daughter work at the gym. The three went months without a salary, he said.
The Games help gyms like Buechner's rebound. Membership grows roughly 10% every summer Olympic year, he said.
"It's helpful, especially coming off of COVID," Buechner said. "Our industry got rocked. Fitness really took a hit, especially in Michigan. We're grateful for every percentage we can get."
Young athletes set sights on Olympics
Troy Gym was buzzing with the news Simone Biles had withdrawn from the team final on Tuesday, Buechner said.
The gymnasts pay close attention to the Games. Most don't watch the events live, since they take place in Japan and most live broadcasts air early mornings in the U.S., but they check the results before they head to the gym for practice.
"Every one of them is interested," he said. "Everyone has a favorite. Every one of them cheers them on."
The 7- and 8-year-olds practicing at Troy Gym on Wednesday were divided on their Olympic aspirations, but most watched the Games.
Alexa DeSano, 7, wants to compete at the elite level. Gymnastics is fun. She's learning new skills and that practice pays off. After getting into the sport as "a little girl," she started to improve and get "really good."
Rosaryn Sujarit, 8, plans to continue with gymnastics, though not at the Olympics. She loves doing flips, getting stronger and impressing her family, but she doesn't want to be on television.
"The young ones, especially this time of year, they all want to be Simone Biles or Suni or MyKayla," said Hunt, referring to the U.S. gymnasts at the Tokyo Games. "That's why I got into gymnastics. I saw Mary Lou Retton.
"I think we all start out wanting to be an Olympian."
Olympics serve as bright spot after abuse scandal
The Tokyo Games could symbolize a new chapter for Michigan gymnastics. In the five years since the U.S. Olympic team gathered in Rio de Janeiro, gymnasts from across Michigan and the country have testified about the widespread sexual abuse perpetrated by then-doctor Larry Nassar and revealed abusive training practices at an elite Lansing-area gym.
With the U.S. Olympic team again competing in front of a worldwide audience, gym owners say it's time for the public to give their treasured sport a fresh look.
"The culture has changed and we need light at the end of the tunnel," Hunt said. "We need to be able to show that gymnastics has changed in the state of Michigan. This is a perfect opportunity for parents to let their children explore their love for gymnastics and give those local gyms a chance to show their culture."
Hunt aims to foster a healthy culture in her gym. She and her coaches try to set an example for athletes by working hard and dedicated themselves to the sport while remaining respectful and compassionate to others.
"This sport is all about balance, right?" Hunt said. "You're balancing on a bar. You're balancing on a beam. And to be honest, to be a great gym owner and to be a great athlete, you have to balance between pushing for the end dream and keeping everyone safe."
Buechner, an athlete himself, agrees. He wants his gymnasts to prioritize family, academics and safety over the sport. Youngsters don't need to clock 36 hours a week in the gym.
"These kids are growing up," he said. "They need to gradually get there."