No fear in falling
Not content to sit along the wall watching their charges roll and bounce gleefully around the Hawaii Academy Gym in Kalihi, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents tumble and flip on those same mats and trampolines, getting fit, recovering lost functions, competing in meets and - like Buzz Lightyear in "Toy Story" - falling with style.
Safe Falling Workshops
Check with your physician before beginning any new exercise regimen.
» When: Noon to 2 p.m. Aug. 25, repeating monthly, for all ages.
» Place: Hawaii Academy
» Sessions include: An hour each of theory/principles and practical training
» Call: 842-5642 or visit www.hawaiiacademy.com
» Cost: $30
» Also available: Seniors Flexibility-Fitness class and training in trampoline, tumbling, fitness, dance and advanced extreme sports. Fees vary.
With proper falling their No. 1 imperative, gymnastics team and exercise class members ages 1 to 100 practice repetitive "break-fall" or roll techniques on soft mats, until they are habit.
Ten years of research went into developing these methods, which, coupled with exercises that dramatically improve stability and balance, have not only proven beneficial to seniors but also have inspired some to train and compete in gymnastics meets.
Championship titles won by academy gymnasts include more than 30 Junior Olympics nationals, more than 10 elite nationals, and four age-group worlds. With the big shoes of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren to fill, the Senior Gymnastic Team is poised to burst onto the world scene - just as soon as organizers locate a team of 80- and 90-year-old trampoline and tumbling enthusiasts in some other country.
"Although still viewed as an extreme activity for the elderly, the Hawaii seniors thrive on the opportunity to train for new thrills," said Dr. Max Vercruyssen, academy founder and director, educator, scientist, member of the Hawaii Statewide Fall Prevention Consortium, and self-proclaimed "Fall Advocate."
Senior team captain and assistant coach "Tutu" Joan Kufferath, at 71, is the first USA Gymnastics Hawaii grandmother trampoline champion - and with six years as champion in her age division, has the most competitive experience.
Helen Merrick, an 89-year-old retired language professor, and her 62-year-old structural engineer daughter, Jonna Otto, are newcomers. "I always wanted to take gymnastics as a kid," said a smiling Otto, who then performed a double flip on the trampoline as if she had.
"My daughter was doing (gymnastics), so I joined, too," Merrick added. "My favorite is the trampoline: I'm gaining more confidence every day." It's probably just a matter of time before she pulls off the double flip.
Rounding out the feisty foursome is 67-year-old Jean Wall, who finds gymnastics much more interesting and fun than other exercises. "And the social aspect is something I never dreamed about," she grinned, triumphantly dismounting the trampoline after a back flip.
The Senior Team is headed to the first Maui Trampoline Championships Aug. 30 to 31, where Merrick and Otto will compete in trampoline, double-mini trampoline and tumbling events.
Senior Team members join the weekly 60-100+ Flexible-Fitness Exercise Class to warm up, stay fit, maintain falling skills - and to have fun. Laughing and chatting while stretching, strengthening, balancing, tumbling and bouncing, members swap stories of both coping with aging (one student is partially paralyzed by Parkinson's disease), and the dramatic recovery of lost functions such as unassisted walking, range of motion (washing their own hair again), flexibility, increased energy and stamina, and improved balance recovery after slips or stumbles.
"Typically, students brag ... about falling well - without injury," Vercruyssen said.
Tutu Kufferath bragged: "I was walking at Kamilo Iki Park in Hawaii Kai, and I tripped on some uneven ground. I hit the grass, rolled over my shoulder and got up. No injury!"
Hiroshima bombing survivor Izumi Hirano, 79, recalled that his first time on the trampoline gave him a stomachache. Then he bragged: "Now I have really good balance, and I'm not scared of falling. ... I'm confident. And the classes have really benefited my tennis game."
Then Vercruyssen bragged for him: "At 71, Izumi became the oldest to master the 'kip' high-bar mount; he challenges his grandkids to climb the rope to the ceiling using only hands; he is the best senior roller - both handstand and dive forward; he has great back rolls; and his martial arts experience allows him to roll in nearly any falling position."
William Schulz, also 79 and a retired pilot for the Navy and Trans World Airlines, said the skills he's learned "saved my buns several times." He once flew over his daughter when she was riding a bicycle and unexpectedly braked in front of him. "My hands met the ground, arms collapsed and I went into a classic roll. I got a tiny scrape on my shoulder, and a bruise in my side where the pedal dug in. It was reflex: a case of 'the mind remembers what the body doesn't.' "
Just as Vercruyssen would have envisioned ... and with style.