SIDNEY — Alex Thompson, 17, and Parker Slaven, 11, know hard work pays off. And they have the medals to prove it.
The pair won their third national championship at the Nationals competition for acrobatic teams in Greensboro, North Carolina.
For Alex, being part of the competition team is a winning story of its own. He is autistic and belonging to the team has given him a way to express himself.
“When I fist met Alex, he wouldn’t look at you,” said Erica Hicks, Sidney-Shelby County YMCA Acrobatics Team assistant coach. “He wouldn’t talk to you. Shirley Sprague encouraged him to try several different sports at the Y.”
And Alex found what he was looking for in the acrobatics team.
“It took years for him to make eye contact and to start talking to us,” said Hicks. “Now we have to tell him to shut up sometimes. We are blessed to have Alex on our team.
“He’s passing on what he’s learned to others as he’s one of our instructors,” said Hicks.”
Alex, who is the son of Misty Thompson and Josh Rihm, both of Sidney, started gymnastics when he was 8 years old. He joined the acrobatic team when he was 10.
“Shirley asked me to come one day,” said Alex. “It was fun and different.”
“He got to express himself,” said Hicks. “It doesn’t matter where he finishes if you follow the Y’s values.”
Alex said being part of the team has taught him how to make “life decisions.”
“I get to meet new people and teams,” he said. “I go to different states (for competitions).”
At the recent Nationals, he got to meet Ryan Ward, who is the director for the World Championships.
“Alex talked to him everyday,” said Hicks.
“He complemented Alex on his blue hair,” said Jessica Taylor, the team’s coach.
Alex and Parker have been competing as pairs for four years. Alex has been to Nationals five times and Parker has competed there for four times.
Parker, who is the son of Alten and Jennifer Slaven, said he joined the team because “he wanted to get trophies.”
“I don’t have any trophies but I have a lot of medals,” said Parker.
Both boys met through the YMCA’s program, but soon discovered they live close to one another.
Alex said he was nervous the first time he competed at Nationals but each year it gets easier because of all the practice time he has.
Parker said his favorite thing about being on the team is “everything.” But he really doesn’t like the skills where he’s thrown high up into the air.
Members of the acrobatics team practice on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 1 1/2hours each day and two hours on Friday. They practices are all year. The ‘Bats team practices from Labor Day to Memorial Day on Tuesdays and Thursdays for 1 1/4 hours each day.
“We have outstanding athletes here,” said Ed Thomas, CEO. “Alex and Parker are just part of that program. It’s a credit to them and their coaches that they perform at the level they do. But the real credit goes to Alex and Parker. They are excellent in their sport.
“What I love about Alex is that he gives of himself,” said Thomas. “He gives of what his learning with the younger athletes. If there’s another autistic child here and Alex can connect with them and help the child overcome their fears and challenges.”
Taylor said a father recently signed his son, who is autistic, up for the program because of the success Alex has achieved.
In addition to Parker and Alex, who competed at level 8, three other acrobats competed at Nationals. Jaiden York, 15, and Emily Rowe, 11, competed at level 6 in women’s pair and they finished 11th. Alex competed with Aubrey Hoying, 9, in level 8 mixed pairs and they finished fourth.
“Our team practices year round. Our competition season is from January to July,” said Taylor.
The local YMCA is the only YMCA in the nation to have a competitive acrobatics team. All their competitions are against private gyms.
The acrobats, said Taylor, earn the right to compete at Nationals.
“We have local meets where they qualify to compete at the state level,” said Taylor. “At state, you qualify for regionals. At regionals, you qualify for nationals.”
The competition, said Taylor, is a combination of individual elements and partner stunting, which includes balance, skills and holding the post. There are also dynamic skills involved which includes the base person, in this case Alex, throwing Parker into the air and catching him.
“There aren’t a lot of boys doing this sport,” said Taylor. “Alex and Parker were both on the acro team and it was natural for them to do the men’s pair competition.
“Alex and Parker jelled. Their personalities balanced with one another. Not a lot of partners stay together like they have. They have just meshed and have a lot of fun competing.”
At the level Alex and Parker are competing at, their routine is 2 minutes, 45 seconds long. It includes the balance element, along with the dynamic element. Taylor choreographed their routine with input from both Alex and Parker.
“We want them to have a routine they enjoy as they’ll be competing with it all year,” said Taylor.”They helped pick the music and it fit their personalities.”
The gymnastic and acrobatic programs continue grow at the YMCA. There will be 40 gymnasts on the team this year and 25 on the acrobatic team. There are 35 to 40 participants in the cheer program.
In addition to these programs, the YMCA also has a Baby ‘Bats team, which is a pre-team for the acrobatic team.
“This took off this year,” the coaches said.
The acrobats have the option of doing exhibitions at the two meets the YMCA hosts. They can also compete at three meets — two local meets and one state meet. There were 10 members of the team this year.
This year’s nationals team had 12 members. Two other staff members held Taylor and Hicks coach the athletes. Two help with the ‘Bats team. There are usually three staff members on the floor during all the practices. Alex’s mom is one of the team’s coaches.
Even though Nationals have just been completed, Alex is already thinking about next year’s competition.
He has a laundry list of things he wants to add to their routine — all skills he saw at this year’s Nationals.
Alex has another goal on his horizon — competing at the World Competition.
“They competed at level 8 this year,” said the coaches. There are two junior levels for Alex and Parker to complete and then Senior Elite, which is for acrobats up to the age of 30. The Worlds is the highest competition for acrobats as the Olympics don’t include acrobats. The Youth Olympics games do include acrobats as part of their competition.
“The level of competition coming out of Sidney is great,” said Thomas.
“Shirley and Sam Casalano started a family here when they began the programs,” said Taylor.
And that family continues to grow with each competition season.
Reach the writer at 937-538-4822.