COVID-19 Pandemic threatened the viability of Frazee gym

Photo by Robert Williams
Head coach Amie Erickson poses with a portion of her team during a practice session Thursday at the Tumble Force gym. Front row: Hazel Pickner, Brylee Anderson, Janaya Anderson, Shelby Baumgart and Kenzie Oelfke. Back row: Paige Baumgart, Coach Erickson, Amanda Beck.

By Robert Willams

Editor

Running a Midwest Amateur Gymnastics Association (MAGA) gymnastics club team in a town that lies in between two high school juggernauts like Perham and Detroit Lakes is no easy task. Throw a worldwide pandemic in there and it becomes nearly impossible.

For Tumble Force Gymnastics head coach and gym owner Amie Erickson, the past few seasons have seen plenty of struggles.

“We did see a huge decline in numbers with COVID. First off, we just couldn’t have practice and then the bussing situation changed when school started again because they could only have so many kids on a bus. Everything has been self-transportation, which has been hard for parents.”

Amie Erickson

Just last week Anderson Bus finally returned to dropping kids off at the gym located east of Frazee on Highway 10.

There are 11 kids competing for Tumble Force this year. That number has not changed a lot from prior seasons when there were 13-20 on the competitive roster. What took the biggest hit was the recreation-level gymnasts, typically younger kids learning fundamentals.

“My rec numbers are way low,” said Erickson. “There was a time when I had 60 kids in here. It was great. I had three coaches and we just had a great time.”

Photo by Robert Williams
Frazee’s Tumble Force gymnasts were busy in the gym Thursday getting ready for competition to begin in November. Pictured L-R: Kenzie Oelfke, Hazel Pickner, Brylee Anderson, Janaya Anderson, Shelby Baumgart, Paige Baumgart and Amanda Beck. Not pictured: Ellie Erickson, Katrina Anderson, Freya Heggem and Nevaeh Wirth.

While the Perham and Detroit Lakes gyms are not technically direct competition, Tumble Force can be a feeder program to either school as MAGA teams operate under the same rules as high school teams, in comparison to USGA teams that are more level-based.

“The biggest thing is I’m trying hard to fill a gap for kids who can’t afford to go to either of those places,” said Erickson. “For a lot of these kids, to get the same amount of practice that they would get at one of those two places, it would be double.”

According to Erickson, the kids who want to compete in high school typically just go do that. Currently, that is the least of concerns, as Tumble Force needs more numbers to remain fiscally viable and to be competitive as a team. More concerning is making sure people know the option to train in Frazee is still there.

“Now that all the COVID stuff is over and we have bussing we’re trying to get it back out there that we’re still here and a lot of the parents don’t even know,” said Erickson. “If their kids weren’t in school or too young they didn’t even know we existed. We are trying to build ourselves back.”

The program has been kept alive by its core of dedicated gymnasts.

“It’s hard to have a competitive team when you don’t really have numbers to choose from, but the ones who really wanted to be here figured out ways to make it work as much as they could,” Erickson said.

Some of those kids, include Erickson’s daughter Ellie, the team’s most experienced gymnast, also had to work through disappointment when COVID canceled all sports in Minnesota.

“When they shut us down, I don’t even know if we had a week’s notice before our state meet,” said Erickson. “We were literally all ready to go. It wasn’t even a week and we were thinking, ‘no way!’ You just have to make do and know there is some other plan; you just don’t know what it is.”

A lack of participation numbers also detracts from the competitive nature of a team. Gymnastics is difficult. Practice is not easy and for a team to be successful the members and staff need a communally shared intensity. Struggling through the pandemic created a deterioration in competitiveness that caused some advanced kids to go elsewhere.

“Last year, two of my best athletes left and went to DL because of the complacency,” said Erickson. “They want that level and they knew I would give them that level of coaching, but they wouldn’t get that level of competition from a team.”

Building back that competitive spirit with her team is equally as important as getting more kids into the rec program for Tumble Force to continue to be successful.

Working with kids around the standards of intensity and discipline that gymnastics requires can be tricky.

“Kids are either intrinsically motivated today, or there is no way to get them to do things,” said Erickson. “I remember very well showing up for gymnastics practice and the coach would grab you by your undershorts and pick you up, set you up on the beam and say, ‘you’re not getting off until you do what I tell you to do.’ Today, you can’t do that. A, they’re either going to quit or B, you’re going to end up getting a lawsuit against you.”

Parents have to be as dedicated as the gymnasts for them and the program to be successful.

“They need to be giving the same messages at home that I am giving here,” Erickson said.

Those messages are life axioms like never settling for ordinary and don’t preach unless you’re going to practice.

“Someone will always be better than you,” said Erickson. “Use it to challenge yourself and use it to work harder.”

Like most gymnastics coaches, the point of their pursuit is not just winning, it’s equally about creating all-around individuals.

“Each child I have a goal for and I try to have one or three for every event,” she said. “The kids who already have the better skills, for them I’m trying to get them to fine tune how they do them and their form. It’s enough to accomplish the skill, but to do it well. The others who don’t have the skills yet and really want them, we’ve been working on really trying to get our floor routines down. We need to work on perfecting them.”

So far, Erickson has seen big improvements from her team.

“I see a huge transition from the kids who were doing them last year to doing them this year and how they’re able to actually listen and try to time it with the music and they’re quicker at picking up their routines, especially the younger kids, which makes my whole life a whole lot better,” she said.

For the kids, their priorities have a range from competing to making their own lives better.

“I do it to build strength and to do something instead of just staying home,” Janaya Anderson said.

For others, like Brylee Anderson, her focus is on learning new skills, while tiny Kenzie Oelfke is there to have fun.

Tumble Force also provides a safe space for kids to be after school and the gym also has dogs who are helpful in the development of emotional states that can range during practice.

“This is so handy for a lot of people because they can’t leave work and they’re trying to find something for their kids after school anyway,” said Erickson. “If the kids can hop the bus here and the parents don’t have to pick them up until they’re done with work, it’s pretty handy. 

“The dogs are good for them. If they’re having a moment they’ll just go and pet the dog for a few minutes and then they’re back on it.”

The current Tumble Force competitive roster includes: Ellie Erickson, Amanda Beck, Janaya Anderson, Paige Baumgart, Shelby Baumgart, Katrina Anderson, Kenzie Oelfke,  Brylee Anderson, Hazel Pickner, Freya Heggem and Nevaeh Wirth.

The team will be having a home preview meet on Monday, Nov. 14 at 6 p.m. The first meet of the season is scheduled for Sunday, Nov. 20 in Melrose.

The gym has a web presence on Facebook, search Tumble Force, but lands most of its recruits by word-of-mouth. The gym is located four miles east of Frazee at 39674 U.S. Highway 10.