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10-year-old gymnast helps team win title

The fourth-grader, who started in gymnastics when he was 2, trains three hours a day, four days a week.

© St. Petersburg Times
published May 3, 2002

TAMPA -- At age 2, Steffen Beck accompanied his mom to LaFleur's gym to learn about gymnastics. Sheila Beck always carried an emergency kit, stocked with juice and spare diapers.

By the time Steffen was 5, he had a good handle on the trampoline, "cheese box" and balance beam and was ready to compete without mom's hand.

Three weeks ago, the 10-year-old was part of a team that captured the Class 6 USA Gymnastics state championship for Florida.

He trains three hours a day, four days a week. By the time he finishes high school, he hopes to be a Class 1 or elite men's gymnast, skilled enough to make the USA Olympic team.

Although he remembers few details from his time in the Super Tots program at LaFleur's, he does remember having fun.

"I remember climbing a ladder and swinging, but I was mostly having fun with mom, in the Tots program," Steffen said. "Once I was old enough to train to compete, mom standing by made me nervous."

His mother never strayed far. He calls her his "best fan."

The straight-A fourth-grader lives in Hyde Park and attends Gorrie Elementary.

He is one of hundreds of boys and girls in the area who learned to enjoy gymnastics growing up in LaFleur's Super Tots program. When the children are ready to compete, they move into training with coach Billy West, who has his own South Tampa roots.

West, 23, graduated from Plant High in 1997, stayed in the Palma Ceia area and enrolled at Hillsborough Community College.

He started coaching gymnastics and other sports at the Interbay YMCA, filling in for an injured coach. The job became a career.

LaFleur's starts kids as young as 18 months, on balance beams close to the floor.

While holding the hand of either parent, the children, both boys and girls, walk on the beam to develop balance.

Children swing on a trapeze and drop into a padded pit -- much as other children might leap into a swimming hole from a rope. The cheese pit got its name because foam pads were once painted to look like cheese.

The objective, of course, is to teach toddlers to move their bodies safely in the air without fear.

Through the years West has worked hard at earning proper credentials to train and coach champions in men's (or boys) gymnastics.

He first earned the USA Gymnastics KAT (Kinder Association for Teachers) safety certification, which is essential for coaches to teach preschoolers. He also is approved by the Southeastern Judges Association and is qualified as a Junior Olympics judge for men's gymnastics.

Steffen's teammates were Justin Stipe, 8, Michael Mozzicato, 7, Nolan Wilson, 9, Richie Alarcon, 10, Tony DePiero, 9, John Parks, 9, and Michael Afilxio, 11. They performed mandatory routines set by USA Gymnastics.

A second squad of bay area teen athletes -- Reed Murray, 13, Cody Conwell, 12, and Giovanni Giarratana, 15 -- also won a state title. They were in higher classifications with stricter routines.

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