WILMINGTON, MA — While all competitive sports require a degree of skill and physical agility, few can match the demands placed on gymnasts. In many cases, the path to success necessitates that training begin at a very early age and intensify as the athlete marches toward her teens.
Take Wilmington’s Emily Provost, for instance, who at fourteen has already spent a decade sharpening her craft. The eighth-grader, who attends Wilmington Middle School and will move up to Wilmington High School in the fall, began her gymnastics career at the tender age of four.
“Me and my best friend decided to do some classes together,” said Provost, who shared her thoughts moments after completing a grueling four-hour practice session. “Basically, I’ve been here my whole life.”
“Here,” as Provost pointed out, is the GymStreet USA facility which is located in an industrial center on Jewel Drive in Wilmington. Providing 34,000 square feet of wall-to-wall equipment, GymStreet had become the go-to training center and proving ground for area gymnastics hopefuls.
When asked to explain the devotion her daughter has to the sport that has consumed most of her young life, Emily’s mother Becky Provost said, “I think the commitment comes from her love of the sport.”
“She has loved gymnastics since a very young age and even through many ups and downs, keeps going back to it. She has made some incredible friendships. The time commitment forces these girls together a lot and they’ve become much more than a team. They’re like sisters.”
For Emily Provost and a number of her teammates, there exists dedication and loyalty beyond their years. Her thirteen-year-old teammate Alexa Graziano, for example, is already a proven athlete and her efforts recently led to a memorable win. According to the 2019 MA Level 7/8 State Championship official results, Graziano placed first on the bars, second on the vault, tied for fifth on the balance beam, and eighth on the floor. She scored 37.325 to claim a share of the Division 13B title. Her score placed her eleventh overall amongst hundreds of competing gymnasts.
Graziano, a rare individual, took a few minutes to explain the somewhat complicated Level system in organized gymnastics. USA Gymnastics, the governing body for the sport in the US, established a formula that takes into account the athlete’s age, the achievement of certain skills, and the completion of specific challenges, among others. Gymnasts are ranked Level 1 through 10 and typically climb the ladder annually, improving one Level each year. In each advancement, the difficulty factor multiplies. There are cases, however, when a talented athlete bypasses the progression.
“When I first started here at GymStreet, I went right to Level 4,” recalled Graziano, who moved from Nashua, New Hampshire to Wilmington seven years ago. “I was a Level 8 last year but because of a knee injury, had to repeat that Level. You have to be at Level 9 to qualify for the Eastern Nationals so the Regionals was as far as I could go this year. I’m hoping I can skip Level 9 and go right to Level 10 for next year.”
At fifteen, Jessica Lee is the elder statesman of this talented trio and the first to reach the halls of Wilmington High School. Lee overcame injuries and a delayed start to her training regimen to reach the Eastern Nationals, held in Kissimmee, Florida in mid-May, and claim fifth place in the floor exercises. She was vocal about her hope that the Wilmington H.S. athletic department would establish a gymnastics team before she moves on to college.
“Every other sport is well-represented at Wilmington,” said Lee, who hopes to attend an Ivy League school after graduating in 2021. “They have track and basketball and many others — I’m not really sure why they don’t have gymnastics. Maybe there aren’t enough girls to make up a team. If that’s the case, there are a lot of eighth-grade gymnasts coming in next year that might make a difference.”
Lee pointed out that the sport, like others that feature punishing workouts, can eventually take its toll. The fifteen-year-old, who takes AP classes and admits that school and academics is her highest priority, has already dealt with a number of injuries and is concerned about her outlook in the years ahead.
“I might do college gymnastics but I’m not really sure if my body will hold up,” she shared. “With all my injuries, I don’t know if I’m physically up for four years of college gymnastics.”
Provost, an exceptional athlete, most enjoys the floor exercises because of the tumbling and dancing routines, agrees with her teammate and emphasizes another important factor.
“We just got a new coach and we’re hoping she can help pull together a team at Wilmington High,” said Provost, who placed fifth overall in both the floor exercise and the balance beam at the Eastern Nationals. “We’ve been trying to get a team started for years. With a team, it might be easier to be noticed by college scouts.”
The girls admit that the daily pressures placed on them can be challenging if not outright unfair.
“Homework, is that a hobby?” quipped Graziano, when asked if she had any diversions outside of gymnastics. “There are no competitions during the summer months but we just keep practicing, four hours a day, six days a week. School, gymnastics, homework. It’s all we do. In the summer, my family goes to the beach and I go to practice.”
But, once again, the maturity kicks in and the girls understand the reasons behind the sacrifice. The chance to compete at the collegiate level is clearly within their reach. That coupled with medaling at key regional and national competitions furnishes the driving force.
“Having been to a few clubs throughout my career, I’ve encountered numerous gymnasts and I can absolutely say this group of girls is driven,” said Coach Chelsie Burland, who recently joined Kristen Kempton and Carlos Castro on the GymStreet staff. “Undoubtedly, they have goals they want to accomplish and they’re here every single day pushing to achieve those goals.
Burland didn’t try to conceal her admiration of the Wilmington girls.
“To me, Emily is the silent leader,” said the coach, who plied her trade as a gymnast at Ithaca College and has been coaching for fourteen years. “She’s quiet, hard-working, and never stops. You can always count on her to get the job done. Alexa is vibrant and enthusiastic. She’s the chatterbox and can always put a smile on everyone’s face. Jessica is similar to Emily — quiet, but determined. She knows exactly what she wants to accomplish.”
Burland, who hopes to successfully campaign for a Wilmington High School gymnastics team and seems to have the resume and resources to make it happen, highlighted a common theme that sets gymnasts apart from many other athletes.
“There’s literally no stopping these girls,” she said. “True, with school factored in, we see them more than their parents see them. We do become something of a family because they spend so much time here. It’s pretty much a full-time job for them. But the commitment and dedication speaks to their success.”