Special abilities gymnasts set the bar a little higher

Women are first members of local team to compete in USA Gymnastics event

By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter

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photoGeneva "Gigi" Gernhart, 24, focuses on her balance beam routine Sunday as her Special Abilities team competes in an open meet with five local clubs at Naydenov Gymnastics.

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photoCcoach Sheri Bousquet, from left, and assistant Kylie Weaver, 14, give instructions to Special Abilities team members Carissa Brown, 33, Geneva "Gigi" Gernhart, 24, and Hadley Park, 27, during Sunday's open meet at Naydenov Gymnastics.

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photoHadley Park performs to "Blue Moon" during the floor exercise Sunday at Naydenov Gymnastics. Along with Special Abilities teammates Carissa Brown and Geneva "Gigi" Gernhart, she competed in an open meet against gymnasts from local clubs.

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If you go

What: Naydenov’s annual Rock ’n’ Roll Classic gymnastics meet.

When: Feb. 23, 24.

Where: Clark County Event Center, 17402 N.E. Delfel Road, Ridgefield.

Carissa Brown, Geneva "Gigi" Gernhart and Hadley Park each had a chance at center stage Sunday, performing their floor exercise routines to a doo-wop-flavored instrumental of "Blue Moon."

Each gymnast was rewarded with boisterous applause that left all of them smiling long after the song's baritone-sax finale had faded away.

The young women are part of the Special Abilities team at Naydenov Gymnastics, but Sunday's competition was not a Special Olympics event. It was an open meet featuring six teams, and that's what made the morning … well, extra-special.

It was the first opportunity for any members of the Special Abilities team to take part in a USA Gymnastics event, Coach Sheri Bousquet said.

"It was amazing," Gernhart, 24, said after the three gymnasts had a chance to catch their breath.

Park, 27, described her response to the event as "tears of joy."

The team competed at the bronze level, during the morning portion of the daylong "Shooting for the Stars" meet at Naydenov Gymnastics. More than 90 other gymnasts from Power & Grace, Precision Elite, OGA, Gym Elite and Naydenov XCEL also participated in the morning session for bronze and silver gymnasts.

In the team's previous special athletics events, such as the State Games of Oregon, her gymnasts were ranked according to the other competitors, Bousquet said. But that's not like being judged according to USA Gymnastics scoring standards.

That's why Bousquet continued to do some quick coaching as her performers headed into each event.

"Keep your toes pointed in," Bousquet reminded Brown before the floor exercise.

And after she finished the floor routine, Brown confirmed that she'd gotten the message: "I kept my toes pointed in."

'Serious gymnastics'

The Special Abilities program at Naydenov has a roster of about 20 special needs gymnasts, Bousquet said

Park, Gernhart and Brown, 33, all have Down syndrome. They represent the highest performance level in the program.

Athletes with Down syndrome "have a weak core, but they are flexible and strong, and that makes a good gymnast," Bousquet said.

But all team members are held accountable, Bousquet said. "It's serious gymnastics."

Bousquet is a former Hudson's Bay High School gymnast who segued into judging and is qualified to judge at the NCAA level.

A volunteer officiating stint at a Special Olympics meet in Oregon led to this coaching gig. One of the gymnasts celebrated a landing by exclaiming: "TA-DA!" … and then asked Bousquet if she liked it.

Her response: "I loved it!"

The Special Abilities gymnastics program started with her half-brother, Andrew White, who has Down syndrome.

Shelley Park, whose daughter was part of Sunday's competition, said that the "gymnastics program allows Hadley to be herself," in a community of peers.

"Programs like this are especially important to people with disabilities. Typically, they are unable to just drop into any activity," she said. "As a result, they play the part of tag-along or, the alternative, sit home. For both, there is a lack of physical activity and social interaction."

Her daughter "recognizes the value of staying in shape and uses gymnastics to achieve that goal," Park said. "Taking all that into account, there is something missing if there are no meets, no competition."