Friday, December 21, 2007

Gymnast aims for Olympics

unedited from 12-07 Tahoe Mt. News

By Kathryn Reed

At 48 pounds and 48 inches in height, Savannah Kooyman doesn’t look threatening.
Get the 9-year-old into a gymnastics arena and all bets are off. She is as strong as some of the 16-year-old boys she works alongside at Gymnastics Nevada in Reno. In her family room her biceps and back muscles look ripped as she easily goes from a sitting position into a handstand and back and forth without her feet ever touching the ground.
“She is so into the strength part of it. She says she likes to feel the burn,” said her mom, Susie.
“She is one of the strongest 9-year-old girls I have seen. Her upper body strength is amazing. And she is so flexible,” her coach Andrew Pileggi said.
Savannah admits she has to ice her muscles on a regular basis. Her diet isn’t restricted, though her mom says she gets extra protein.
The South Lake Tahoe native has her eye on the 2012 London Olympics. She is focused on this dream that requires her to spend four hours a day, five days a week training.
“It’s really fun. You get to try new skills and stuff,” Savannah said. Her braided blonde pigtails flop around while she stands on her hands. She says it takes more strength to stand on your hands than it does to walk around.
Two of her newest feats are a back flip on the balance beam and keeping her body erect as she goes from a handstand on the top uneven bar and spins all the way around.
It all started when her mom signed them up for a Mommy and Me class when Savannah was 16 months old. She took a break and at age 4 started the path that has led her to national recognition.
She was one of nearly 100 9-year-olds to go to Texas in October to compete in the Talent Opportunity Program put on by USA Gymnastics at Bela Karolyi’s. Karolyi coached Nadia Komenich and Mary Lou Retton to Olympic gold.
A cold hampered her quest to make the TOPS National Team, but she is ranked in the top 40 in the nation for girls her age.
Her coaches, Pileggi and Lena Dimitriev, are gearing up for next year’s TOP event. Pileggi has competed on the United States’ national team and Dimitriev for her native Russia so they know what it takes to be an elite gymnast.
After winning the state title in Las Vegas last month at level 5, Savannah will start the season that begins in January at level 6. Before the elite level, gymnasts ascend through 10 levels of rigor.
“She is like a pre-elite gymnast. Most girls peak at 14 to 20 years of age,” Pileggi said. “She is on that path to compete on a higher level of gymnastics.”
Beam and bars are Savannah’s favorite events, but to excel at the top echelon it’s necessary for a gymnast to be well versed in floor and vault as well.
To keep up with such a rigorous workout schedule, Savannah started home schooling last year through Lake Tahoe Unified’s Independent Learning Academy. She’s only been competing for a little more than a year and already has a slew of awards to show for it.
Other South Lake kids go to the gym in Reno, which Susie Kooyman says is the only way it works for her family. Car pooling is a savior. The other gymnasts are Jo and John Herrera, Griffin Carter, Matt Vane and Casey Tera.
Savannah is doing her part to help defray the cost of traveling to Reno and regional competitions -- which is also helping the environment. She and her dad, Steve, recycle cans, glass and plastic bottles. Area golf courses contributed their empties during the summer and the Rockwater and Rendezvous restaurants still save their recyclables for her. If you want them to pick up your recycling, call (530) 573.8912.
To see Savannah compete, attend the Feb. 15-17 Lake Tahoe Classic at South Tahoe High School.

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