Olympian, youth gymnasts set cartwheel record

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There was quite a scene Monday afternoon on the Roberto Clemente Bridge, when two-time Olympic gold-medalist gymnast Gabby Douglas and more than 700 local youth gymnasts set a world record for the most cartwheels performed at one time.

The event, which featured gymnasts from 14 Pittsburgh-area gymnastic clubs, was a promotion for the USA Gymnastics National Championships, which will take place Aug. 21-24 at Consol Energy Center.

“It means so much to me to see how excited [these gymnasts] are and to see how excited they are about breaking a record and cartwheels,” Douglas said. “It’s just all about having fun.”

Gabby Douglas promotes gymnastics, cartwheel event

Olympic gold medalist Gabby Douglas was in Pittsburgh today to oversee a world record attempt at sumultaneous cartwheels and to help promote an upcoming gymnastics event. (Video by Nate Guidry; 6/23/2014)

Shortly after noon, two rounds of practice cartwheels were performed on the bridge before the official record was set. The 700-plus cartwheels broke the record of 482 set in 2009 in the Netherlands.

Douglas made headlines two years ago as a 16-year old, winning an individual gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics in the all-around competition and leading the “Fierce Five” group of Americans to a team gold. Then, she took nine months off from training.

“It’s good to take time off so your body can relax. I’m glad to get time off because I got to rest mentally and physically. I needed that nine months. And then I got back into it because something clicked in me and said, ‘OK, it’s time to get back. It’s time to put the hard work back into it,’” she said.

After taking her break, Douglas returned to training in West Des Moines, Iowa, with Liang Chow, the coach she worked with before the 2012 Olympics. She is hoping to make a comeback and compete in the 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

“I do love gymnastics and I do love what I do and I like the hard work, putting effort in every day. And those thoughts come into my mind saying ‘Oh gosh, why did I come back?’ But, you know, when I have good days in the gym, they override that.”

Douglas trains in the same gym where 2008 U.S. Olympian gymnast Shawn Johnson trained. Johnson attempted to compete in the 2012 Olympics at the age of 20 — not young for a gymnast —but was unable to do so because of a left knee injury. Douglas, who will be 20 in 2016, is not fazed by the fact that she will be older than the typical Olympian gymnast.

“My body feels great. I feel the same. The gym feels the same. Nothing’s changed. Nothing’s different,” she said.

Although she is training, she has not resumed competition. But that might change as soon as the national championships in August.

“Maybe you guys will see me here,” she announced to the cheering crowd gathered on the Clemente Bridge.

That would certainly please the 700-plus youth gymnasts on hand and the excited pedestrians who watched the event from the sidewalk. A constant, high-pitched chorus of “Gabby!” flooded the bridge as fans of the Olympian high-fived and took pictures with the star.

“Mom, I got a selfie with Gabby!” one young fan called out, attempting to comprehend her good fortune.

Another pleased enthusiast was Tess Piscatelli, a 13-year old gymnast with the Gym Dandys gymnastics club.

“It’s exciting because it’s once-in-a-lifetime,” Piscatelli said of the experience.

Also in attendance Monday were Pitt women’s head basketball coach, Suzie McConnell-Serio and 1980 Olympian gymnast Ron Gallimore. McConnell-Serio, a Pittsburgh native and women’s basketball gold medalist at the 1988 Games, held up her gold medal for the crowd to see as she spoke about Olympic dreams.

The record-breaking event was one of many around the country to celebrate Olympic Day, which takes place June 23 each year.

It’s unclear whether or not Douglas will return to Pittsburgh for the national championships in August, but if she doesn’t, it’s not for a lack of appreciation for the city.

“[Pittsburgh is] gorgeous. Stunning. I can’t believe how many bridges they have,” Douglas said.

Hayes Gardner: hgardner@post-gazette.com and Twitter @HayesGardner.

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