WILTON — If it seems like Kate Ginsburg spends as much time in the gym as she does in the classroom or in bed sleeping, well, it is close to being true. Ginsburg, a junior at Wilton High School, is a member of the school’s gymnastics team. She also competes for the Wilton YMCA, where she is also a coach.
You would think Ginsburg would savor her discretionary time. But for an hour every Tuesday night, Ginsburg and four of her Wilton teammates work as coaches with the Y’s Special Olympic team.
“It’s really fun,” Ginsburg said. “The girls are great. You become really close with them. Seeing them do new skills, which they think they can’t do, and the smiles on their faces doing something that seems impossible. Like I can flip around like other gymnasts. It’s a really good feeling.”
Coaching the Special Olympians has become a tradition for the Wilton gymnasts since Christina Foley became the Y’s special needs director six years ago. This year Sam Huffman, Alyssa Jarrett, Brooke Taffler, Carter Siegel and Ginsburg are the coaches.
“They have been fantastic,” Foley said. “It is their team this year. They grew up in these programs and they would see the Special Olympians practice. As the older girls graduate a new group of girls join.”
Foley said there are usually six to 12 athletes at a time, ranging in age from eight to 30.
“It’s really rewarding,” Ginsburg said. “You are going for an hour a day and you might be in a bad mood or something and when you are with them it puts you in a better mood. I remember a day one of the girls, she was late getting picked up and we hung out for a bit. She’s my favorite little girl in the entire world and you create some kind of bond and they feel if they are having an issue they can talk to you. Gymnastics is a personal sport. Even now on our high school team or Y team, you become nervous, you can’t keep it in, you need to talk it out and it becomes personal.”
Wilton is a contender for the FCIAC title. The championships are being held on Saturday. The Warriors defeated Fairfield Ludlowe, which was undefeated, earlier this week. Greenwich and Trumbull are also in the title hunt.
Wilton’s Jessica Olin will be going after the overall title. Greenwich’s Kelsey Fedorko is the favorite.
Teaching gymnastics to people with special needs, because of the difficulty of so many skills, is more challenging than many other sports. It requires a number of important qualities.
Huffman was asked to compare coaching gymnastics as opposed to, say, soccer, a sport she played growing up.
“Gymnastics is really about overcoming fear and having that mental mindset that I can do this,” Huffman said. “I will just go for it. Soccer is running and not doing it or not doing it, but how well you can do it. This is like branching out and doing different things. It’s not getting better but trying new things.”
Added Ginsburg, “We always say gymnastics is 75 percent mental and 25 percent physical. Trying to get someone to walk across a four-inch beam is a little nerve wracking.”
Ginsburg and Huffman both started gymnastics at young ages and were instantly hooked.
“When you do gymnastics it is a year round sport and it takes a lot of time so you really have to be committed,” Ginsburg said. “The only other thing I have ever done is cheerleading. I don’t thing I’ve tried anything else.”
Coaching the Special Olympians has become a tradition for the Wilton gymnasts. As seniors graduate, a younger group joins the coaching staff.
“I got into it because of the girls before me,” Huffman said. “They were trying to recruit new coaches and sometimes it is hard to find them.”
Foley said it is debatable who has gained the most from this special relationship.
“I think the Special Olympic program means as much to the coaches as it does to the athletes,” Foley said. “It teaches them so much. Kindness, warmth and what it means to work with these great athletes. It is a real life experience for them. It is fantastic for the coaches who do this and fantastic for the athletes who do it. Gymnastics has run because of the volunteer athletes from Wilton High School. I’ve been lucky to have amazing volunteers in all of my programs.”
Ginsburg said there is a similar sense of satisfaction watching one of her athletes succeed as when she performs a strong routine competing for the Warriors.
“It is really like body awareness,” Ginsburg said. “You have to keep your toes straight. Getting girls to do a straight jump and tuck jump and bend your knees for a tuck jump. We were working with a girl since we started and this year she finally bent her knees and it was just so rewarding. Something clicked and she just got it and we were all like…it makes you feel so good because they finally got it.”
Huffman said working with the Special Olympians has given her additional insight when she is being trained.
“Being on the other side of it, coaching it, you see what our coaches are trying to say and get a better understanding and apply it to your own self,” Huffman said. “Overcoming it mentally.”
For Ginsburg, this may end up being a transformative experience.
“It taught me I love coaching the Special Olympic girls and helped me decide I may want to get a special education degree,” Ginsburg said. “I can do this. It makes you feel good, it makes them feel good. There are times it gets a little harder. They don’t want to listen and it gets difficult. But the days when they are doing great and you see the joy that it brings them. You can’t wish for anything better. It’s amazing.”