Gym­nasts Georgia McDowell, Olivia Long, Katherine Darling, and Eliz­abeth Hamilton, left to right, pose at the Hillsdale Gym­nastics, Dance, and Cheer Center.
Emily Blatter | Col­legian

Four-year-old beginning cheer­leader Riley McNair stood atop her team­mates’ shoulders for the first time, eyes squeezed tightly shut.

She was ter­rified.

Riley had never been lifted into the air before, and to someone her age, the three-and-a-half feet between her sneakers and the blue-car­peted tum­bling floor felt like miles.

“Ok, now open your eyes. Look at yourself in the mirror!” her coach said.

Riley ten­ta­tively opened her eyes, and her face lit up.

“I’m flying!” she cried.

More and more local kids like Riley are learning how to fly. At Hillsdale Gym­nastics, Dance and Cheer Center, they learn skills that lift them off the ground.

“I really like the bragging rights at school,” Georgia McDowell, a 14-year-old cheer­leader and level 4 gymnast, said. “As long as you can do a backbend, everybody at school is jealous.”

Started by Hillsdale alumna Jill Hardway in 1986, the gym enables local kids to learn the physical, mental and emo­tional skills sports like gym­nastics have to offer.

“Any kids that want to try gym­nastics can try, whether it’s someone who has a dis­ability or someone that just doesn’t really listen,” cheer­leading coach and Hillsdale College senior Corianna Baier said. “[Hardway’s] really willing to work with a lot of dif­ferent kinds of kids, and giving them that structure is really good for them.”

The gym has two facil­ities: recre­ational stu­dents take classes on the third floor of the building in downtown Hillsdale that houses the Hunt Club, while com­pet­itive stu­dents train in a ren­o­vated barn on Oak Street. The downtown facility fea­tures a rock wall, a zipline, and an inflatable bounce house, in addition to standard gym­nastics equipment, Hardway said.

“The bounce houses are ideal for aerobic activity,” Hardway said. “Gym­nastics is an anaerobic sport, so we love to get them in that bouncer to elevate their heart rate and get them warmed up.”

Most kids spend between one and four hours a week in the gym. The lighter workload allows the kids to learn gym­nastics and become phys­i­cally fit without giving up life outside the gym, Hardway said.

Although the gym­nasts and cheer­leaders at the center are involved in activ­ities outside the gym, they said most of their friends are other girls on the team — even girls who are much older than them.

“Cheer, espe­cially, is a team sport,” Baier said. “You’re lit­erally letting people lift you up, and counting on everyone to make it all look good. You have to really trust each other and be good friends with each other, and be sup­portive.”

The older cheer­leaders on the team help the younger ones learn and improve, although they were intim­i­dating at first, the younger ones said.

“It was really scary, because they were huge com­pared to us,” cheer­leader and ten-year-old Katherine Darling said.

Olivia Long, a 10-year-old cheer­leader and gymnast at the center, agreed.

“We were like ants com­pared to them,” Olivia said.

The cheer­leaders and some gym­nasts compete while the less expe­ri­enced children perform in a recital at the end of the year. Georgia said she and her level four teammate could begin com­peting as early as this month.

“They do really, really well, and they really like it,” Baier said, regarding the girls’ per­for­mance in cheer com­pe­ti­tions. “They have a lot of fun, putting on all the makeup and the uni­forms.”

But gym­nasts and cheer­leaders come away from their sport with more than tro­phies, muscles and a standing back flip, Hillsdale senior Kat Torres said.

“It’s so much bigger than winning, than the glitter in your hair and the com­pe­tition leotard,” Torres said. “It’s about devel­oping a person, who can go forward in their life with con­fi­dence, courage, deter­mi­nation, and ded­i­cation, and I feel like I owe that all to the sport.”