By Michael Walker
Gymnastics is one of the many recreational activities for both military and civilian families offered by the Kadena Youth Center, located at Kadena Air Base, the USA’s largest combat wing of the U.S. Air Force. Kadena is one of 11 military bases in Okinawa, Japan, the largest in the Rkukyu island chain at roughly 877 square miles that is just over two-thirds the size of the state of Rhode Island. To give some perspective, Okinawa Island sits some 1,300 miles south of Tokyo, Japan, and approximately 430 miles off the eastern coast of Taiwan. More than 40,000 American troops call the island home.
Known as the Typhoon Twisters, the gymnastics program offers classes at the pre-school level and currently go through Level 5 and up.
With gym time a scarce commodity, the different levels practice together and because of the lack of gym space, each girl is restricted to just five hours of training a week. It’s a sharp contrast to the 15-20 hours that most of the girls put in at their gyms back home in the United States.
The Okinawa gym has 10 coaches, led by head coach Cathy Kiser. Kiser says the main goal is to safely teach the fundamental skills of gymnastics and develop skills the kids can take into their everyday life. The skill levels vary greatly, from students getting a feel for the sport for the first time to athletes with competitive aspirations.
While some of the girls plan to join a gym when they return to the U.S. and hope to compete at elite levels, their return could be years away. The average military tour in Okinawa is three years, though it can vary depending on the branch. Some families even extend their time and have stayed on the island for six to eight years. Thus, USA Gymnastics Okinawa works to train gymnasts to keep up with their mainland counterparts but with considerably limited resources.
"I saw a lot of talent at the gym going nowhere and felt like we needed to do more," said Kiser. "Teylana Hill is one of the most talented gymnasts in the gym, yet she had never had an opportunity to be a USA Gymnastics athlete. Her talent was just sitting here. She was learning skills and continuing on the climb to be the best, but she and the other girls needed more."
There are gymnastics competitions in the capital city, Naha, Okinawa, but the U.S. gymnasts are only allowed to compete twice with the Japanese teams due to International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) rules, and even when competing, they cannot receive awards. That is why a meet held on the base last year was so special.
The coaches, with the help of USA Gymnastics judge Beth Keller, held a meet at the Kadena Youth Center gym for 11 of the girls from Levels 5-7.
For three of the competing girls, this was their first competition. To help stage the meet, Keller gathered donations from companies and gym clubs across the United States. A-1 Awards donated medals, while USA Sports Productions donated ribbons for each event. Robin Kirsch, a close friend of Keller’s, donated over 40 leotards to the military families who couldn’t afford their own. Mary Roth provided music for their floor routines. USA Gymnastics provided posters, pins and educational materials to help support the girls’ continued progress.
"I thought after 38 years of judging that I would just be doing another nice little meet, but was I ever wrong," said Keller. "I walked into the Kadena Youth Center and immediately felt the excitement, nervousness and complete joy of all the gymnasts, parents, and coaches."
Keller, whose stepdaughter, son-in-law, and three grandchildren have been on the base for nearly three years, was there for a week to visit her family and help judge the event.
"I didn’t stop smiling the whole meet," said Keller. "The parents clapped for every routine, every completed trick and every score put up. We even had parents and kids watching who didn’t even have gymnasts in the meet. But afterwards, they told me how much motivation this has given their daughter."
The Typhoon Twisters and their families were thrilled for this opportunity, not just because of the awards and the medals, but also because it was a small part of home reaching out across the Pacific. The donations, the judging, the recognition for their hard work, despite their distance, meant they were not forgotten.
As one mom put it, "The generosity was overpowering."
"How do you thank complete strangers, 10,000 miles away, for loving your kid," wrote Marci Hyla in an email to Keller, referring to the donations made to make the meet possible. "Our daughters live a transient life, due to their parents’ active duty service in the military. The hardest and saddest part is being uprooted every 2-3 years from their gym and team, starting over in a new duty station.
"So, what did it mean to them to know that their family of gymnastics in the States remembers them and cares that they are here?" continued Hyla. "Everything. They have sacrificed so much for a life they were born into and didn’t choose, but they are amazing and remarkable, and we are so proud of them."
While many of them are eager to return to the States and continue competing, they are also hopeful to continue the long distance connection they felt during their inaugural meet last spring. Since that time, other opportunities have opened up to the Typhoon Twisters. Through donations and fundraising, eight of the girls traveled to Kailua, Hawaii, in January and competed in the 38th Aloha Gymfest.
"It was an awesome experience for all involved," said Kiser. "We all learned so much. Gymnasts came from all over the country. We got to see talent from a wide-range of beginners to seasoned gymnasts. It was really a great experience! We would like to return in 2015, so we have a lot of work to do."
After becoming a registered business with USA Gymnastics in December 2012, the Typhoon Twisters have started a Facebook page with pictures and excerpts about the goings-on at their gym: USA Gymnastics Okinawa. To contact the gym or follow their progress, visit facebook.com/USAGymnasticsOkinawa.