In gyms across the country, adults who are young at heart -- though not quite as flexible as the stars in Athens -- are doing summersaults, handstands and even back handsprings.
“I’ve always felt and known from a spectator side that gymnastics is very popular. Once the Olympics come around, there’s a big spike in participation,” said Eduardo Ovalle, spokesman for the National Collegiate Gymnastics Association (search). “Everyone gets into it, all different levels.”
During the Olympics in Greece, gymnastics has regularly drawn more than 30 million viewers, which speaks to the sport's popularity. But it's not just for watching.
When most people imagine gymnastics, they picture either elite athletes or pre-pubescent kids who weigh under 100 pounds bounding around on mats. But adults of all ages take up the sport for fun and a great workout, according to Peter Kormann, who was the head coach of the men’s Olympic gymnastics team in Sydney and Atlanta.
Today, Kormann -- who won the U.S.’s only men's gymnastics medal in the 1976 Olympics, a bronze for his floor routine -- runs the largest adult gymnastics program in the country at Chelsea Piers in New York City.
“Gymnastics is really fun … people come to classes with no expectations, and then after a while they say, ‘Hey, I really want to learn a back handspring,’” said Kormann.
One such enthusiast is Lisbeth Kaiser, a 23-year-old New Jersey native who started taking the class about a year ago with literally no experience.
"I never did it as a kid -- except in my backyard,” she said. “Some of my friends took gymnastics classes, but I never did because [my mother] just felt a little iffy about it, I guess. Now I can make my own decisions.”
Kaiser, who uses gymnastics as her main form of exercise, said she’s been thrilled at how much she’s learned over the last year.
“I’ve always loved gymnastics because it’s amazing to watch, and it’s amazing to just feel your body doing these ridiculous things that you never knew you could do,” she said.
While doing handstands and round-offs doesn’t necessarily leave you out of breath like a 45-miunte spinning class would, Kormann said it gives people one of the best overall workouts possible.
“We have people who take Pilates and yoga and weightlifting, and then they take gymnastics and they come in and say they couldn’t move, they’ve never been so sore,” he said. “When you do a front handspring you use every muscle that would never be used in a weightlifting workout.”
Boredom with regular gym classes and a desire to work his body in new ways is what drew 33-year-old Stephen Cloutier to the Chelsea Piers gymnastics classes.
“I kept doing weightlifting and that kind of thing and it just got so boring, and this was a great way to get an aerobic activity without having to do something that was just everyday,” said Cloutier.
Cloutier did acrobatics as a kid and can easily perform a front handspring -- but he has one goal he has yet to meet.
“I feel like it makes me stronger and it helps me with my flexibility -- and I’m trying to get my back tuck,” he said.
At a recent class in New York City, some 20 people ranging in age from early 20s to mid-40s -- with equally diverse levels of experience -- lined up to practice tumbling. After a warm-up, two instructors took students through simple forward and backward rolls and onto more challenging floor skills like a round-off followed by a back flip and forward flips into a pit of cushy foam.
While some students like Cloutier have the benefit of previous training, many of the students came into gymnastics cold.
Debbie Gleicher, 27, grew up playing basketball and didn’t even know what a handstand was when she started taking gymnastics close to a year ago – but she said she wasn’t daunted by sharing the mats with more experienced people.
“It’s pretty humiliating at first. It still is, but you get over it,” she said. “I figure there are always really good people and there are always people who are just starting.”
Kormann said that kind of attitude, paired with the fact that students can really make progress, is what gives gymnastics such cachet.
“You are always getting better and you can always measure your accomplishments based on what you can do -- like six months ago, I couldn’t do that,” he said.
Plus, added Kaiser, doing gymnastics allows her some serious bragging rights.
"Something like this is perfect for me, because it keeps me totally entertained and then an hour and a half later, I’ve had a really good workout. And I can tell my friends that I do handsprings and feel really cool about that.”