By Valerie Vinyard –
Over the years, scads of kids have tumbled through Gymnastics World’s doors.
Besides learning balance, discipline and a variety of skills and routines, many students would say they have become better people because of their experiences there.
The kids mainly have two people to thank – owners Don Gutzler and Yoichi Tomita, who have been partners in Gymnastics World for 34 years. Today the gym has two locations and about 50 employees.
Tomita arrived in Tucson in 1979, where he was part of the national coaching staff for USA Gymnastics.
Gutzler, an Illinois native, attended Southern Illinois University. While there, he realized his university had a terrific gymnastics team, and he thought it was a great sport.
“Even though I couldn’t do it, I wanted to be involved,” said Gutzler, a former high school math teacher turned accountant who was living in Tucson when Tomita arrived.
Tomita, a decorated gymnast in Japan and the United States, has an impressive gymnastics resume. He also excelled in the sport at Long Beach State University.
“I was lucky enough to be one of the very best,” he said. “I was able to travel around the world with the best gymnasts. Now we are affecting people’s lives in a positive way.”
Nathan Goff, a longtime Gymnastics World student who has learned much from Tomita, agreed.
“Yoichi is a really good coach,” Goff said. “He’s part of the Olympic selection committee and he really knows his way around gymnastics.”
Tomita and Gutzler subsequently joined forces. Though both do many things when it comes to running the business, 58-year-old Tomita focuses on coaching some of the 1,500 kids a month who walk into the gym, while 67-year-old Gutzler handles the business side of Gymnastics World. They employ several other coaches for both locations.
One of those coaches is Goff – one of the gym’s many success stories. The 18-year-old Tucson native will leave this summer to attend the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. During Goff’s junior year at Canyon del Oro High School, the West Point gymnastics coach began emailing him to express interest in recruiting him. Goff responded and the rest soon fell into place.
“I think a lot of opportunities will arise if I go there,” he said.
Goff started at Gymnastics World when he was 3 years old. That sounds young, but the gym accepts kids starting at 18 months. Parents must accompany their kids until they turn 3.
“I always ran around a lot and was jumping from the monkey bars – so my parents decided to put me in,” said Goff, whose specialty is the pommel horse. “I learned that you need to have dedication and to work really hard and to never give up. Gym has taught me a lot. You can achieve great things.”
At 5 feet 8 inches and 144 pounds, Goff is tall for a gymnast. That hasn’t stopped him from excelling, however. Goff has made it to nationals five times and can be found at the Gymnastics World on Fort Lowell Road with his five teammates five days a week, three to three-and-a-half hours at a time. On Thursdays, he coaches younger kids.
“It’s a great way to learn life values,” Goff said. “Yoichi always says if you put in the work you’ll be successful, no matter how talented you are.”
Still, there are downsides to excelling in a particular sport or activity, Goff noted.
“It takes away all your time. You can’t really go to school functions like football games. I don’t care though – I love it so much.”
Goff tried his hand at other sports growing up, such as soccer and wrestling, but injuries and lack of time sealed his decision to focus on gymnastics.
“It made me realize that if I want to get good at gymnastics I couldn’t do other sports,” he said.
Gymnastics World has cultivated and trained some of the nation’s top gymnasts over the years. One of the gym’s claims to fame is coaching Kerri Strug, who nailed her final vault on an injured ankle to win the Olympic gold medal for the team in 1996.
People have moved to Tucson from New York, Los Angeles and Texas to train at Gymnastics World. The gym still offers one of the top boys programs in the country.
Gymnastics World has come a long way since its start in 1978 at a location on First Avenue and Grant Road with about 80 kids. Since then, they’ve coached about 50,000.
In 1981, the gym moved to a 10,000-square-foot building at 201 E. Fort Lowell Road, where it coaches the higher levels and still welcomes hundreds of kids a month. Another slightly smaller location opened in 1993 at 6985 N. Camino Martin, near Ina and Thornydale Roads.
Gymnastics among girls remains very popular, but the number of boys participating has declined over the years because of the popularity of other sports such as football, basketball and baseball.
And once gymnasts finish college, they’re usually finished with the sport. As Goff puts it, in terms of competing, “there’s not really anything to do after that.”
Gutzler, who is married to Tucson broadcaster Lupita Murillo, enjoys seeing the kids develop over the years and says that competing shouldn’t be the goal of everyone.
“Gymnastics is good for everybody,” Gutzler said. “You learn discipline and a good work ethic.”
Tomita agreed, noting “it requires dedication.” He said there’s a common misconception that gymnastics is dangerous.
“It’s done under a really controlled environment,” he said. “You can start at any age, or any level.”
The two don’t have plans to retire yet, but eventually they hope to pass the business on to someone who will continue the tradition.
“The beauty of what we’re doing – it’s not just a job, it’s a passion,” Tomita said.
“Parents come in and say, ‘I used to be your gymnast,’” Gutzler said.
“If someone comes in with their grandchild and says, ‘I used to be your gymnast’ – then we know it’s time to retire.”