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ST. LOUIS - Michelle Hasson hates strength training.
But as a former cheerleader and high school athlete-she played soccer, water polo and ran track-she knows that lifting weights is an integral part of staying in shape.
So a few years ago, she traded in one kind of gym for another. Instead of spending her time on Nautilus machines, she decided to check out some other equipment-stuff like uneven parallel bars, balance beams and vaults.
Today, at 26, Hasson, of St. Charles, Mo., is part of a level five St. Louis Gymnastics Centre recreation team. Her teammates' average age? Twelve or 13.
"Though I compete, girls from other teams don't compete against me," explains Hasson, who is married and a speech pathology student at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville. "I don't get called up to the awards stand if I place. But after the meet ends, if I won an event I'll receive a medal."
"My coaches are really cool and the girls act pretty mature, so I don't feel too self-conscious. I just enjoy the challenge-it's fun!" says Hasson, who adds that at 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds, she doesn't look that different than many of her middle-school teammates.
In the world of gymnastics, however, Hasson is an oddity. Let's face it-most superstar gymnasts are teenage sensations.
Think of Russia's Olga Korbut, who at 17 dazzled the world with a spectacular routine on the parallel bars during the 1972 Munich Olympics. Or Romania's Nadia Comaneci, who won the gold at 14 during the 1976 Montreal games.
American sweetheart Mary Lou Retton was just 15 when she turned in two perfect 10s in floor exercise and vault during the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. And Shannon Miller and "Awesome Dawesome" Dominique Dawes-part of the fabled U.S. women's Olympic team of 1996 - were pushing the limits at 19 and 20, respectively, when they struck gold in Atlanta.
Which is not to say that Hasson is a lone adult out there in the world of trampolines, rings and floor routines. Several facilities offer open workout nights for older gymnastics enthusiasts. But it's rare to find any participants past the age of 30 there.
And the reason is simple, according to Virginia McGinnis, a master personal trainer at Wellbridge Athletic Club in Clayton.
"Gymnastics takes incredible core strength and flexibility," says McGinnis, 40, who was a competitive gymnast growing up in California. "Plus there's the fear factor. Most adults wouldn't want to attempt a back tuck off the bar."
Adds Bob Levine, 41, a St. Louis Gymnastics Centre coach: "As you grow older, you lose your quick-snap reflexes. And the high-impact nature of some of the equipment, like the vault, can be an orthopedic nightmare."
Add to that the time factor-most semi-serious gymnasts train at least 12 hours a week-and it's easy to see why the sport hasn't caught on as a quick, shape-up solution for weekend warriors.
Still, neither McGinnis nor Levine discounts the benefits adults could derive from incorporating some gymnastics into their cross-training routines.
"No machine can develop your upper body like a workout on the rings . . . the gravity and movement work your muscles in an entirely different way," says Levine, a former high school gymnast and now art director at BSK Inc. "Trampolining can give you a good, low-impact cardio workout, and tumbling-handstands, flips, cartwheels, roundoffs-is great for balance and agility."
The stretching gymnasts do-straddles, headstands, bridges-is similar to many yoga poses as well, McGinniss says. "Gymnastic warm-ups are wonderful for flexibility, which is important in everyday life-especially as we age," she says.
And, of course, there's no such thing as an overweight gymnast. Think Cirque du Soleil-pure muscle.
"The stomach drills are incredible for your abs," says Hasson, whose goal is to continue competing until she's 30, when she hopes to graduate and start a family. After that, she adds, "I'm thinking about diving lessons."
(c) 2003, St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.