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.”