For a girl who thrives on improvisation now, Amanda Weigand used to stick solely to the basics of gymnastics: forward rolls, simple trampoline jumps and weaving through an obstacle course.
The simplicity of her early routine is easily explained – she was only 2 years old.
After Weigand participates in the West Regional Girls Gymnastics Championships in Spokane in late April, her 16-year gymnastics career will come to an end. The Flathead High School senior recently qualified for the regional tournament by finishing second in the uneven bar competition at the Montana Gymnastics Championships at Glacier High School. While she did well at the bars, an ankle sprain prevented her from participating in the floor routine, which she says is her strongest and favorite event. She also does the balance beam.
With or without the floor routine, she’s happy to be one of nine gymnasts from Montana going to regionals. Kassidy Williams, another gymnast who trains at the Flathead Gymnastics Academy in Kalispell, also qualified.
“It’s my last hoorah,” Weigand said.
The Flathead Gymnastics Academy is a cozy gym tucked away on Seventh Avenue West North, just off West Idaho Street. Weigand has trained there since she moved to Montana when she was 10 years old. Steve Henneford, who runs the academy with his wife, Jeanine, said the academy is the only gym in the valley that trains gymnasts competitively.
Henneford has operated the gym for 18 years, training a number of level 9 gymnasts and a few who have reached level 10, the highest ranking in gymnastics. Weigand is level 8. Henneford said Weigand is blessed with innate ability.
“She’s a very talented gymnast – natural talent, she’s got it,” he said.
Weigand, like many high school gymnastics stars, will not continue with the sport in college. Henneford said gymnastics is a difficult sport to pursue competitively after high school. First of all, to even be considered by a college a gymnast needs to be at least level 9. For a scholarship, a level 10 ranking is probably necessary, he said. But even then, a gymnast has to get noticed before college, which involves the costly endeavor of traveling frequently.
“You need to be three things: talented, self-motivated and rich, unfortunately,” Henneford said. “You’ve got to go places to be seen.”
Henneford’s most famous trainee is known for another sport that requires twisting and turning in mid-air, but on snow instead of a mat: extreme skiing. Tanner Hall, a multi-gold medalist at the Winter X Games, developed some of his ability for air theatrics at Henneford’s academy. Eventually, though, Hall traded the gym for the slopes.
Henneford said about 150 kids train at his facility, a number that spikes to 200 during the Summer Olympics, a time of peak interest for gymnastics. The kids’ ages range from 6 to 18 years old. Seventeen of the 150, including Weigand, participate competitively, traveling to meets around the state and in other states. In February, Weigand participated in a meet in Phoenix.
While the academy’s turnout is strong, Henneford said Missoula’s gym attracts about 750 kids annually. Bozeman and Billings, as well as other Montana cities, also have big gyms. But Henneford said a lot of people are attracted to the other features of those gyms, from swimming pools to birthday parties. Henneford, while he likes joking around with the kids, is serious about training and runs his gym accordingly. He said he’s “bad at playing preschool games,” which might make some parents shy away from the academy.
“They can do that at daycare,” Henneford said. “It drives me nuts – this is a gym.”
Weigand continues to spend 12 to 15 hours per week training at the academy, though she is limited by injuries. On top of the sprained ankle, which last week was still puffy and purple, Weigand is battling her usual assortment of back pains and other aches. Yet, in a way that only athletes can understand, she’ll miss the aches and pains of competition when she graduates high school and attends the University of North Dakota next fall.
For now, Weigand has regionals to look forward to as well as this spring’s track season. She is a high jumper at Flathead. Eventually, though, she would like to coach gymnastics or find a way to stay involved with the sport.
“I can’t be done altogether with gymnastics,” she said. “That would just be weird.”
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