BURLINGTON — It’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday and the aircraft-hangar-sized gym on Ray Avenue is wall-to-wall with dozens of ponytails tumbling, flipping, and vaulting as the parents arrive and depart in a steady stream, backing out and pulling into the parking lot out front.
“You are here like in a Metro station, in and out,” said Mihai Brestyan, who with wife Silvia founded Brestyan’s American Gymnastics a dozen years ago and is trying to figure out ways to keep everything under one roof, especially now that they’ve started a boys program.
Ever since star pupil Aly Raisman came back from the Olympics seven weeks ago with a couple of gold medals, Brestyan’s has been jammed with everyone from toddlers to transfers, the numbers doubling to nearly 700. “The problem we have is to find very quick more coaches to keep the standard,” said Brestyan. “Because you expect the gym to grow but not to grow so fast. You need to have good instructors to make sure that everyone is doing their job.”
The Brestyans have 15 tutors now, supervising everything from the Mom and Me program to the elite level, which produced both Raisman and predecessor Alicia Sacramone, who won a team silver medal in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.Sacramone’s comeback from a torn Achilles’ tendon fell short of Olympus last summer. Raisman is with her gilded London teammates on the 40-city Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions.
Meanwhile, the new quadrennium is underway, the countdown clock to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro is ticking, and it’s unclear whether Raisman or any of the Fierce Five will stay for a reprise.
“We don’t know how many of the Olympic team will continue,” said national team coordinator Martha Karolyi. “We have to think about the next generation.”
So Brestyan already has made the first of his monthly trips to the national team’s training center/boot camp in Texas, where he is an assistant coach specializing in floor exercise. With a couple of exceptions, the September gathering was for more than two dozen juniors, a handful of whom likely will form the core of the next Olympic team.
Raisman may continue, take a sabbatical of a year or more, or retire and go to college. Talia Chiarelli, the other elite gymnast at Brestyan’s, will join Michigan’s varsity team next year.
“It is a little bit scary for me because I need to start all over again,” said the 59-year-old Brestyan. He reckons that he has three or four gymnasts poised to make the jump to the international level (“I don’t want to give you names”) and another 15 young ones coming up behind them.
A potent pair
When the Brestyans opened their first gym in Ashland in 2000, less than four years after emigrating from Israel, they had only 20 kids in the building. Five years later, Sacramone won a gold medal at the world championships in Melbourne, then made the Olympic team. Raisman followed. Now Brestyan has a pipeline of five-ringed hopefuls.
“You have Alicia first, then you have suddenly Aly,” he said. “Same coach, same system, same gym. Wherever you look, everybody knows who is the coach of the champ.”
Sacramone earned 10 world medals, the most ever by an American gymnast. Raisman won three in London and missed a fourth on a tiebreaker. Every gymnast on the planet saw her jump into Brestyan’s arms after she’d clinched her floor gold. No other recommendation is necessary.
“Mihai really proved himself this year,” said Karolyi, who has known Brestyan for nearly four decades. “He had success with Alicia and really came through with Aly. He has the coaching style that is really able to get results. He has the traditional Romanian philosophy, which is strong physical conditioning and creating the situation in training to be as close as possible to competition.”
Lorena Quinones, who competed for Puerto Rico at the Games, now trains at Brestyan’s gym. So does Venezuela’s Alexandra Avendano. Aya Mahgoub, who won a gold medal for Egypt at last year’s Pan Arab Games, has been here for five years. The German women, who trained at Brestyan’s earlier in the year and went on to have their best Olympic finish in two decades, want to come back. “I don’t care for what flag they are competing,” said Brestyan. “They can come here.”
Chiarelli, who moved from Ontario in 2006 when father Peter became the Bruins general manager, turned up on Ray Avenue by serendipity.
“We had to find a new gym to go to, and the first one that came up when my mom searched on Google was this one,” she said. “It was kind of chance.”
Since the Games ended, Brestyan has been getting calls from gymnasts’ parents from as far away as Oregon inquiring about relocating here.
“My advice all the time is do not jump so fast, because you need to change your life,” he said. “Show me the kid first and then I’ll tell you if it’s worth it or not. The sacrifice is huge and I don’t want you to come back in two years and to blame me and say, ‘Look, you didn’t tell me that.’ I cannot promise you a gold medal. I cannot promise you anything.”
Coming to America
The odds of making it to Olympus are daunting. Nearly 100,000 girls compete in gymnastics in America. There are five spots on the national team. None of the Beijing medalists earned a return trip.
Brestyan’s has 200 girls competing on 11 teams, and the best of them are world-class. “There’s always someone you can look up to here,” said Chiarelli.
Even if a gymnast doesn’t make it to the Olympics, there’s the possibility of a free ride to college.Though a back injury sabotaged Chiarelli’s chance of making the Canadian team this year, she still got a four-year ticket to Ann Arbor and the Big 10.
During the past dozen years, more than 30 Brestyan’s gymnasts have gone on to compete at colleges ranging from Brown to Auburn to Stanford. Jannelle Minichiello and Becca Marrama are at the University of New Hampshire, and April Baker will go to Rutgers next year. “That’s the best of the American system,” said Brestyan. “In Europe you go for the national team or you don’t go anywhere. Here, you also have the medals for your life. You have that scholarship.”
By now the Brestyans don’t need to advertise, and they say they don’t recruit. “If someone comes to us from another club we call them right away to let them know, look, this kid is looking for another gym,” Brestyan said. “We try to keep a good professional relationship with everybody. “We always tell the parents, think twice before you make a decision because maybe it will not be the best choice. The program is difficult. You are princess in your gym and you will not be princess in my gym. We have a lot of other princesses here. You need to work hard like them. You will not have your own crystal box.”
For most of the ponytails in the program, the crystal box still is years away. Many of them came with their mothers when they were just out of diapers and began ascending the ladder like Kyla Gerard, a 6-year-old who now competes in Level 3. “She’s here four hours a week,” says her mother, Colleen. “She loves it.”
The Brestyans are in the gym from 8 a.m. until 9 p.m. six days a week. “Sunday, no,” said Mihai. “Even God had rest.” After the Olympics, they got away to Antigua for five days.
It was their second vacation in 15 years. Someone in a leotard always is coming through the door, and ever since one of them came back wearing a gold medal, the Metro station has been full. “We like what we’re doing,” Brestyan said, “That’s a huge advantage.”