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Putting minds and bodies to the test

STARS caters to intense athletes as well as recreational ones, blending movement with discipline.

By SUSAN LADIKA
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 29, 2002


WESTSHORE -- On a stretch of West Shore Boulevard best known for semis, small factories and apartments, youngsters in leotards, martial arts attire and T-shirts work up a sweat in an old warehouse.

Every week, hundreds of children pour into the 23,000-square-foot gym to practice cheerleading, gymnastics, tae kwon do and other sports at STARS -- South Tampa Athletic Recreational Sports.

Some come for the competition. Others come for the opportunity to hone their skills.

Jordan Weber, 13, and Kirby Kreider, 12, two precocious girls from St. Petersburg, began practicing gymnastics at STARS this fall after a bad experience at another gym.

"We just love it here," Kirby said in between moves on the uneven bars and balance beam.

Coach Mike Veras "treats us like equals. He's not condescending."

Veras, who has coached gymnastics for 14 years, thinks everyone, from the beginner to the competitive gymnast, has a place at STARS.

"We teach self-respect, discipline, perseverance and self-esteem based on the results of hard work," he said. "Through discipline and perseverance, you can accomplish anything."

That's evident in STARS' competitive cheerleading program, which began six months ago. Three teams won first place at the American Championships regional tournament at the University of South Florida this month. Another placed second.

They competed against teams from as far away as Naples and Daytona Beach.

Lori Moses, an owner of STARS and head of its cheerleading program, has a simple philosophy for achieving success.

"If you make them love you, they're going to work hard," she said of her young charges. "And if you treat them with respect, you make them love you."

The attitude seems to be working. When STARS opened in April at 5400 S West Shore Blvd., Moses thought they'd be lucky to get enough kids to fill two teams. Now they've got more than 100 on four teams, and parents keep calling.

The toughest part is finding qualified coaches.

Mike Mitchell, a former University of Florida cheerleader who coaches teens at STARS, said some schools consider cheerleading a sport and offer scholarships. At STARS, students can practice certain flips and pyramids that public schools prohibit because of liability concerns.

"We try to give kids a safe environment to compete and prepare for college-level cheerleading," he said.

One champion of the program is Theresa Durant, Plant High School's cheerleading coach. Durant's two daughters cheer at Plant and compete on STARS teams. For students who want to be cheerleaders in college, STARS "takes them beyond where we could take them" in the Hillsborough County school system, she said.

Her daughter Lindsey, 15, says STARS has helped her improve her tumbling skills. She also enjoys spending time with other the cheerleaders, even those from competing schools. Plant and Robinson high schools in South Tampa are "really big rivals. But we see each other in the gym, and it's become nicer," Lindsey said.

Five couples joined forces to start STARS: Moses and her husband, Chip, Bruce and Scarlett Holland, Rick and Kathy Schulz, Joe and Teresa Pietro, and Kris and Susan Fernandez. They knew each other through the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, where they were involved in the Seahawks and Raiders, two longstanding rivalries.

The owners have invested about $200,000 in the gym, which draws from their youth football connections. More than 300 youths ages 3 to 18 from across the county participate. Classes run from $45 to $65 a month, plus a $25 annual fee. Private lessons cost $36 to $65, depending on the number of hours.

"We want to enrich the lives of the kids and teach them winning isn't everything, and how you treat people is more important than anything else," Lori Moses said.

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