by Audrey Dimola
Published in Ins&Outs Magazine, Vol. II, Issue 1 – May 2008 (pg. 21)
It’s about 3:30 in the afternoon and the fourth-floor gym at Long Island City High School is bustling with activity. An impressive array of equipment is on display: the parallel bars and pommel horse are positioned, the rings are lowered, the high bar is hoisted up, and thick blue mats are unrolled.
The volume escalates from loud to louder, and LICHS’s boys gymnastics team works together, talking and laughing along the way, as they set up for their daily practice – supervised, as always, by Ken Achiron, who has been coaching at LICHS since 1978.
Achiron is, just as he says, “100 percent in the sport,” and with thirty years of coaching, combined with his involvement in gymnastics judging at college and national levels (including USA championships and Olympics trials) he is able to bring a thoroughly informed perspective to all LICHS athletes.
The school boasts a particularly well-rounded education for public school students, including twenty-five varsity teams – and, namely, one of the eight remaining boys gymnastics squads in New York City. LICHS has emerged as a major training space for young gymnasts. In addition to the boys’ and girls’ teams, students can select gymnastics classes for their P.E. requirements. Their substantial variety of equipment is also set up in the summer to be available for all city kids during PSAL’s summer recreational program, the Big Apple Games.
Before long, the boys are nimbly inverting themselves into handstands, skillfully maneuvering hand-over-hand and leg-over-handles of the pommel horse, and setting off down the padded straightaway to launch themselves into the air with great natural force, or with the extra bounce from an air-filled cushion. Several individuals on the team can also make “giant swings” on the high bar look easy; they rotate completely over the bar and back around (and around…), even quickly switching the positions of their hands.
The LICHS team is larger than most, at around twenty-five boys. They practice everyday for at least two hours, and occasionally on Saturdays, as well as taking part in optional practices during off-seasons and the summer. Their dedication has paid off: after winning the Edward Scrobe Tournament in 2007, the team was looking forward to their LICHS Invitational Tournament in January, which serves as a precursor to the results of the PSAL City Championships. LICHS also won their seventh City Championship last year, after a season in which the team achieved a perfect 7-0 record (LICHS went on to win the 2008 City Championships; overall record: 21-0! –Ed.).
Balancing personal and academic responsibilities, overcoming injuries, and staying focused in a mentally and physically demanding sport is a challenge for any athlete, but especially an athlete in high school.
“You really have to manage your time,” eighteen-year-old senior Cristian Dorelis says. “It’s a lot of commitment, but if you love the team, it’s a commitment you’re willing to make.” Dorelis was unexpectedly hooked on gymnastics after starting at LICHS, and later became their enthusiastic team captain. “I guess I want to prove myself,” he says. “And I love heights – I love the adrenaline, I love the rush… I love to be with my friends, with my brother [who is also on the team]. It’s about living in the moment and having fun.”
Sixteen-year-old sophomore and co-captain Ben Antoine, who is defending City Champion in the All-Around, has been participating in gymnastics since he was five years old. “I’d do gymnastics after school [at a club in Chappaqua] and come home really late,” Antoine explains, but since he transferred to LICHS, he has been doing all of his practicing with the team. After eleven years in gymnastics, Antoine knows why he’s still committed. “It’s unique, it’s not like any other sport,” he says. “There’s always more to do, there are more skills to learn, it’s almost never-ending.”
Seventeen-year-old junior Jensse Torres, who ranked first in the City Championships for his floor exercise, also enjoys the “variety of events that you can do here,” as well as the tension-relieving benefits. “I could just work out,” Torres says, “and then when I’m out of here, I’m stress-free a little bit more, and I can just do my homework and other things.”
Their individual relationships to the sport may differ, but as Achiron says, “I think [gymnastics] builds a lot of self-pride – it builds the ability to go out and do something and not be afraid or embarrassed.” Aside from their many honors and titles, Achiron will always be concerned with what perhaps comes easiest with this addictive, high-flying activity: ensuring that the athletes leave LICHS “with a good feeling about this sport” that will surely last way beyond high school.