Beyond Gymnastics co-founder Taylor Cole Woolworth helps Emma Grace Pizer across the low beam. Photo by Collin Richie.

Beyond Gymnastics delivers ‘gold medal moments’ to kids and adults with disabilities

Lifting her legs high as she makes her way across the balance beam, Emma Grace Pizer is glowing as if she has just won the gold in Rio by the time she reaches the end of the low wood obstacle. Jumping off and running back to the beam’s start, she is eager to start the exercise over again, unaware of its therapeutic qualities. Across the gym, Saphie Miro, Emma Grace’s classmate and best friend, displays a seemingly unlimited amount of energy as she jumps across the long tumbling trampoline and hangs from the suspended loops. All the while, both girls are followed enthusiastically from obstacle to obstacle by Beyond Gymnastics founders and fellow gymnasts Taylor Cole Woolworth and Taylor James, affectionately dubbed “the two Taylors” by the families that have become a part of a newly formed special-needs gymnastics community.

Launched just months ago, Beyond Gymnastics was born out of the two Taylors’ work as behavioral therapists at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders, or CARD, and the inspiration they felt when in the presence of students young and old.

With help from Beyond Gymnastics co-founder Taylor James, 3-year-old Saphie Miro swings on newly modified suspended rings, which are now suitable for the smaller hands of younger students. Photo by Collin Richie.

“We wanted to create a place for kids, and now all ages, with special needs to come and have fun,” says Woolworth. “There are other places to do gymnastics, but often they don’t ask if a child has a disorder such as autism. And other places that are exclusively for children with disabilities are more geared toward therapy.”

Fun is the name of the game for Woolworth, James and their third instructor Peter Santos as they take advantage of every corner of the Elite Gymnastics facility in which Beyond Gymnastics holds its small group classes and private lessons. The students start with rolls down wedged mats and end with cannonballs into a massive foam pit. The 45-minute one-on-one lessons aim to please as students are given the ability to choose which activities they would like to do, using innovative Velcro boards with pictures of each gymnastic element. All the while, the children are learning valuable lessons in taking turns, socializing and executing skills such as flips, rolls, somersaults and more.

“Every child is different,” says James. “Our goal is to cater to each student while also achieving the goals that their parents have set out for them. We get so excited when we see a child pick up on something and when they are excited to come to class. We even have some kids that have made friends and started play groups.”

However, while having a good time is the goal, both James and Woolworth excitedly consider the possibility that their students could eventually achieve fruitful careers in the wider gymnastics world.

“We don’t want to limit them by saying they would only be able to compete against others with disabilities,” says James. “We want them to be able to compete on integrated teams because we know they can learn all the same skills.”

For parents, it is this reach-for-the-stars attitude that gives both Woolworth and James an edge in teaching their children.

“The Taylors play up to each child’s strengths,” says Saphie’s mother Grisdelia Miro, who has been bringing her daughter to weekly lessons since the program’s start in early January. “Taylor Woolworth is the one who told us that Saphie could have a gift for gymnastics after seeing her on a beam at CARD. It was a no-brainer for us to enroll when Taylor told us she was starting this.”

“You really don’t see a lot of programs like this for children with special needs,” adds Emma Grace’s mother Sarah Pizer. “Kids with Down syndrome have low muscle tone, so this helps with that while also giving her more confidence. I have seen big improvements with how she walks since she has been coming here, and she doesn’t even realize she’s doing therapy.”

Watching as the two girls take turns flipping on the bars and swinging on the rings, the joy and accomplishment in their faces, which reflects in the faces of their on-looking parents, is impossible to miss—a fact that makes all the hard work worthwhile for Woolworth and James.

“Our ultimate plan is to find our own space and have our own gym,” says Woolworth, whose own guest room is currently filled with the miniature trampolines, mats, rings and more that the pair has been slowly stockpiling.

“We have grown so much faster than we thought we would,” adds James. “It’s amazing to see the response, and I am so glad we get to give these kids the opportunity to do something that they maybe wouldn’t have ever gotten the chance to do.”