Talk Story: Karla Villanueva-Bernal, Daniel Bernal

  • Nick Celario / The Garden Island

    Garden Island Gymnastics coach Karla Villanueva-Bernal plays with daughter Luna at her gym Wednesday in Kapaa.

  • Nick Celario / The Garden Island

    Karla Villanueva-Bernal, Daniel Bernal and Luna Bernal stop for a photo Wednesday at Garden Island Gymnastics in Kapaa.

Los Angeles native and gymnastics teacher Karla Villanueva-Bernal loves gymnastics. She has ever since she was a youth.

She never thought, though, that she’d one day operate her own gym. But then after offering a free class at the All Saints Gym, her membership grew so much that she did open her own gym on the Eastside.

With the support of her husband, Daniel Bernal, the couple opened Garden Island Gymnastics in Kapaa in 2014.

A year later, they relocated to a bigger facility just down the road.

But for Villanueva-Bernal, coaching youngsters doesn’t just stem from her love of the sport.

For her, it was her way of protecting them.

“What made me want to start coaching was that I had the really horrible old-school mentality way of coaches that were horrible. Not with conditioning or pushing, I could understand that, but a lot of body shaming. They would break kids down and try to build them up,” she said.

The Bernals spent time with TGI at their gym in Kapaa and talked about the coach’s upbringing in gymnastics and then coaching later, and how the two of them established their own gym.

So when it comes to the gym, do you call yourselves co-owners?

Daniel Bernal: I think we are technically co-owners, but Karla is the real brains of the operation. She does the day-to-day. She’s the head coach. She does the schedules. She actually teaches the kids. I’ve been here in the backend. I’m not here every day. I have my own job. I captain for Blue Dolphin Charters. I’ve been doing that for 10 years. I’ve been supporting Karla though this, but she’s the one that does it.

So, what do you do when you’re here?

DB: I don’t know. What do I do?

Karla Villanueva-Bernal: He’s my support. So, anything I need from the smallest thing like putting the Santa hat on top of the spider (a fake giant spider is hung on a wall in the gym), bring in the Christmas tree, or look over the reports of billings and stuff. I don’t want to do that anymore. We actually started a program where he’s doing that. It was just too much to do everything.

DB: I do a little more of the backend, some of the books. We just implemented a new computer system that, a point of sales system, that I kind of headed up with our front desk. Maintenance, building and painting the room.

KVB: Advertising, well, the little we do. Getting our banners up, getting the website done, you did all that stuff. … We’ve grown quite a bit. I used to do everything old school. Like, paper. Not even on a computer because I was like, “What if it crashes? I won’t have my stuff.”

DB: We went from a hand-written ledger to a computer POS system. We’re using the company in Canada that uses these for businesses. They said that you can input the info of your clients from you existing system. I asked if they can input hand-written ledgers. They laughed in my face. It was so funny.

When we started, if you take it back to the beginning, it was a lot more the both of us. Karla was pregnant with our second child. She didn’t want to drop off our kids at child care, which is really expensive. She was working at a job that would have paid a little bit more than it would have cost to put two kids in child care. She decided that she was going to stop working and she would do classes. We started renting out the space at the All Saints Gym.

KVB: I actually did both. I was working at the KCFCU (Kauai Community Federal Credit Union) in Kapaa, and then I started doing classes on Saturdays. I believe I had just given birth to our first son. That October (in 2011), we promoted by Facebook. We promoted a free gymnastics class for different ages. It’s great how in the Kauai community, everything is like on coconut wireless. You say something, and people show up.

So, we saved some money to start our business. I was working at the credit union and was doing well there, but that’s what I used to do on the mainland. I coached gymnastics. And, I did it here when I first moved here. I worked at KGA (Kauai Gymnastics Academy). Gymnastics, that’s my thing. That’s my passion.

DB: She was coaching a competitive team in South Pasadena at that time. I was living in LA. That’s where we met. We came out here in 2006.

I never would have guessed. I thought you two were local.

DB: I think we’ve embraced Kauai in the same way Kauai has embraced us, particularly with this business. From the start at All Saints working with those little kids, some of those little kids that started with us when they were 2 are still with us six years later. They’re the competitive team kids. They’ve been with us the entire time. We felt the support of this community.

I think it’s a testament of when you do something positive with kids, especially in a place like this, people just respond. In addition to Karla’s hard work and commitment, and she’s just awesome at gymnastics, (we’ve also had) that community support.

KVB: From All Saints, we moved (in 2014). We got a warehouse spot here. It was half the size (of our current gym).

That was a big jump for me. I was still working at the credit union and doing afternoon classes and weekend classes. I was terrified. I was like, “OK. We’re going to open every day and have classes. Are we going to be able to do it?” And, we made it work.

That was when Daniel was like, “Nope. You got this. This is going to happen.” He always supported me with that, and that was amazing.

That was the basis of all this madness. We were trying to have kids, and we couldn’t. Or, it just wasn’t happening for us. We saved this money. It was like, “OK, let’s do our own gymnastics business. We’re not going to have kids. Let’s focus on something else.” Of course, the day we bought the mats that year, we got pregnant. Which was great, but it’s like, “OK, we’re having a baby and now we’re doing this.”

So you opened the gym because you weren’t planning on having kids. But when you started the process, you got pregnant?

DB: Yeah. But then, three (kids).

KVB: At first, it was just, I wanted to do a gymnastics class. It’s something I wanted to do. He saw that I was bummed and not happy. He wanted me to be happy. So, I started that. But then the idea of this could actually be who we are, I get to be with my kids and I get to do what I love, that’s crazy. I sometimes have to pinch myself and be like, “Is this real?” I can’t believe all these things are happening. It’s pretty amazing to see where we have come from and where we’re at now.

So, how did you get into gymnastics?

KVB: I started gymnastics when I was 7 years old. I’m 40 now, and I was kind of late in the game. I grew up in Highland Park. Back then, it was a pretty heavy Latino community. My father was a professional boxer. My parents were always big in having all the kids do sports because they didn’t want us involved with gangs, drugs and things like that. They kept us in line.

I had the choice of baseball, the rec center had gymnastics and they had some other stuff. My sister was doing baseball. I wasn’t going to do it because she didn’t want me with her, so there was gymnastics. I started then.

It was great. It was small, like how we started. There was just mats and a few other things. I did really well there. They told I had to leave that facility to go an actual gym facility. During that time, the closest one was the YMCA in Eagle Rock, which was a little bit of a better neighborhood than Highland Park. It was the closest facility that wasn’t super costly.

It was hard for my family to have me be in that sport. They never told me until I was older, but that was the best thing. That’s when I started competing. We were the YMCA Shooting Stars, hence my team is called the Shooting Stars. I wanted to continue that.

What made me want to start coaching was that I had the really horrible old-school mentality way of coaches that were horrible. Not with conditioning or pushing, I could understand that, but a lot of body shaming. They would break kids down and try to build them up. I was always the type of kid that was quiet.

My parents taught me, “You never talk unless your spoken to, always respect your teachers and elders.” Being Mexican, I feel it’s the same here — the respect.

When I hit puberty, it was really hard. Mentally, I quit. The way they were treating us was really bad, and I never told our parents. What I told them was, I’d pretend to do a cartwheel at the house, I’d make a loud noise like I hit a wall and say I hit myself and I was injured. I was too scared to say that adults were being inappropriate. They’re adults. They should know better. I’m just a kid.

Three years of my life, I didn’t do gymnastics. I didn’t want anything to do with it. And then in high school, they had a gymnastics team. One of my old coaches from the rec center, he worked there. … I didn’t even have to try out. He saw me flipping around, and they were like, “Hey, do you want to be on the team?”

Started competing again. One of my old coaches who was the director at the Y was judging and was like, “Hey, we need coaches.” It was great. Under her, I started coaching at 16. She taught me. We’d go to conferences, clinics, different things. We had to get all these certifications.

One gym, one of the coaches that gave me one of the worst times was coaching there. I was like, “I can never leave this gym. I got to protect these kids. I got to make sure what happened with me doesn’t happen now with these children.”

I think that’s what you see a lot here. I get a lot of reference from people who come visit and do gymnastics on the mainland. They come here and they see that, yes, we have to get work done. But the loving and family environment, you see it.

I want that for the kids. I want to be so excited or happy when they come here. I don’t want them to fake an injury and pretend they can’t do gymnastics. There’s a lot of horrible stuff going on, and I want to protect them.

When you decided to start a full-time business and leave your job, how difficult was it for you to make the leap of faith?

KVB: What made me quit my 9-5 job and go for gymnastics? The reality of I probably need to get three 9-5 jobs if I want to have children and maintain economically having a family. There’s no way for us to be able to support having children and having one 9-5 job. I felt I was pushed more. “OK, it’s time for you to leave and jump into gymnastics.”

The community, I felt, wanted. It was something that wasn’t on the Eastside. People were coming, and my classes were getting full. (It got to the point people were) being put on a waiting list. Like, OK. I got a lot of backing. That totally reinforced that we could do this. This plan of having our own gym facility, we could make this happen.

DB: If I may also, there were two things for us that we thought of from a practical standpoint. For one, there’s an underserved market on the Eastside. There was only one gym on the island, in Puhi. The entire market of Kapaa as far as kids, which there are a huge amount of families in this area, is underserved. For this service, we’d have a really good market.

Secondly, and this is what I’d recommend for anybody who wants to start a business, we started small. We saved our own money. We bought our mats and our equipment incrementally and we started small.

Like she said, with Facebook and word of mouth, we just did a couple of classes and we grew with the business.

As interest and attendance grew, we were investing more into our business. But we never really went into the red. It wasn’t like we were going to take out these huge loans and put ourselves in debt to start this huge brick and mortar. We started small and took these incremental steps, and it all happened naturally.

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