Talk Story: Jack and Kay Leonard

Nick Celario

The Garden Island

LIHUE — When Jack and Kay Leonard came to Kauai to visit family a decade ago, they thought it was just that.

One of their grandchildren was attending classes with the Kauai Gymnastics Academy and performed in a showcase at that time. Because Jack was also a gymnastics coach, it was serendipitous the program was in the process of exchanging hands.

After negotiating with the previous owners, Jack and Kay bought the program and made the move from Maryland. In doing so, Jack made available to Kauai’s youth more than 30 years of coaching experience in the sport, as well as personal knowledge as a competitor from his days as a gymnast at Ohio State University.

Jack coaches and Kay manages the place.

The Leonards sat down with The Garden Island at their training facility in Lihue and discussed how they acquired KGA and how the program and its students have grown in the 10 years since taking over.

The Garden Island: Last time I saw you both, you were preparing for the Christmas Show at the Kukui Grove Center. How was it?

Kay Leonard: Oh, it was awesome.

Jack Leonard: We kind of overtrained to have the kids calm. We tell them that if we look nervous, then you should be nervous. We try to keep that demeanor of support and excitement, the high spirit of the holidays and so forth. It’s exciting to see that all come through.

Plus, the least amount of time that we spent training was at the show. It was an hour and 37 minutes long — the entire thing. Whereas in the gym, it always came out to be much longer. But we did it in pieces. We didn’t have everybody together at one time, until then.

TGI: You’ve been running Kauai Gymnastics Academy for 10 years now. What does that decade milestone mean to both of you?

JL: For me, it’s reflecting — seeing what we started and seeing what we did along the way to evolve. I think one of the things is allowing all of the kids to feel the success, knowing where they came from. When they learn a new skill and they’re almost in tears, we go back and say, “Do you remember when you started?” If there’s ever a frustration in the gym, we always tell them, “Remember where you started. This is just a challenge in your training.”

Even a year before that (taking over KGA), we didn’t even know we were coming here. So we’re kind of like, “Could you ever believe we’d be here on Kauai helping kids learn gymnastics like we did in Maryland? And be where we are now?” It’s very exciting and very satisfying.

KL: I don’t teach the kids. I just get them there. When I see these kids that came to me as a 3-year-old or 4-year-old, and how they’ve excelled, it’s just awesome.

TGI: Can you describe what the program was like when you first got it, and how it’s progressed in the 10 years you’ve been running it?

KL: I happened to be here for the 2004 exhibition at the mall, when Lisa Fairchild and Willie Washington were the owners. I happened to be on-island when they were having their exhibition. They didn’t have them every year, but there was one that weekend.

JL: We were visiting our daughter and grandkids here that summer. We went to the gym to see one of them in the gymnastics class. We had a talk with Lisa. We had a long talk. She felt that we were on the same page, and we didn’t know she wanted to sell the program because her son needed some additional medical care that was offered more on the Mainland. She decided to make that move. Plus, her mom wasn’t feeling very well.

KL: Her son was born with a heart defect. So, he had open-heart surgery. He was 4 when we took over the gym, and he’s doing great now.

I would say that when we took over the program that first summer, we had about 100 students. Now, we’re up to 300.

Lisa’s background was stronger in dance, not as strong in gymnastics. We totally flipped that.

Jack doesn’t do much dancing. But that’s why we have Tristana Reid, who’s one of our coaches. She choreographs the routines.

JL: She knows ballet and different types of dance. She can help the kid to shine with their attributes. The routine looks like them. You wouldn’t give someone dance elements that involve flexibility if they’re not flexible. Each person eventually evolves to look like their attributes, which is a gif to see that in someone and allow them to shine.

TGI: You’ve already said what’s satisfying about coaching and running your own gym. Can you talk about some things that are difficult? Some things that you struggle with working with children and teenagers?

JL: I think it’s interpreting each individual and getting them to continually be motivated. For example, a person will do a trick and be super proud. I’d ask, “Was that lucky or did you mean to do that?” They’d say, “I meant to do that, Coach Jack,” which means there was purpose. You don’t want to do it luckily. You want to make it purposeful. I’d say, “Can you do it again?” If they can, it becomes a skill and it becomes valuable for a routine.

I say it to them as a coachable lesson. This is why you do something over and over. I challenge on the aspect of the process, then they learn what the process is. When you’re 7 years old, how could you understand that? How would you have the wisdom that is something important for the future. They’re learning it day by day.

KL: It is part of the challenge. Once kids have done 4,956 cartwheels, are they Olympic cartwheels? Probably not, so you’re still going to work cartwheels. They have those days like, “Really? Cartwheels?” I get that with the little kids. They’ll stop and go, “OK, I did 10.” Then I’d go, “OK. Do some more. You’re not done yet.” It’s that constant motivation to do things that you’ve done many times that they have the confidence to do them, but know they’re always going to work cartwheels.

They’re little kids. They have the attention span of a gnat, you know?

TGI: I remember you also said when you took over, you didn’t have this facility.

KL: We started in 1,875 square feet. We took over (Fairchild’s) lease. On Haleukana Street, we were in one of the warehouses there. It was just 25-feet by 75-something. We moved here five years ago.

(In the old warehouse), everything was jammed in. To get to the bathroom, parents, grandparents or kids, you had to walk through this little valley. We prayed that nobody would trip and fall because it was in the back.

TGI: You also mentioned your gymnasts aren’t just that. Some are surfers and bodyboarders. Some also do cheerleading. Is that something that’s different about Kauai compared to when you coached in Maryland?

JL: Kids (over there), they usually work out from 4 to 8 p.m. A lot of them get abbreviated schedules so they can get their homework done. That’s all they do. They don’t do any other sports because it’s frowned upon because they might get hurt. They’re getting scholarships to college, a lot of them, and they take all the life lessons they’ve learned to other places. It’s just a disciplinary sport which lends to other things.

Here on Kauai, where the weather is perfect all year, people aren’t inside all year like in Maryland where it’s cold.

Here, golly. There’s so many good things to do. There’s paddling, surfing, swimming, soccer, baseball, football and tee ball. And cheering is huge.

TGI: So Jack, you were a gymnast in college. Did you always want to be a coach? Was the transition from an athlete to a coach natural or was it something you had to work on?

KL: It’s still something he’s easing into.

JL: When I was in junior high, I thought physical education was the best job in the universe — to help people with sport and fitness because I loved it so much. It didn’t matter what sport.

The hardest thing was that I loved it (gymnastics) so much, that when I became a coach, it was very hard for me to transition to just coaching. I was still a gymnast.

I think the hardest thing for a lot of athletes is to get out of the athletic mode and strictly be in the coaching mode, but you can always access those experiences.

TGI: So what are your plans with KGA, immediate and down the road?

JL: Starting in January, the kids will train and have squad meets where they’re judged so they can get the concept of the process of training skills to become routines, and how to present (themselves) with all the protocol of the Olympics.

We start off with a march out for a meet. We play the national anthem. All the gymnasts are introduced and then they report for their first event. The coaches are judges, unless we hire someone to come out here and judge. They get medals and we build an award stand in the middle (of the gym). The parents get to see the whole process.

We do that in January, February and March. In April, we continue training in the gym. In May, we have the end-of-the-year award night. Every kid gets acknowledged.

In the summer, it’s conditioning and new skills. All of the kids aren’t there all summer. They’ll come and go. In the fall, it’s getting routines down for the mall (show) — training for that, and coming up with routines and presentations.

TGI: For both of you, in the 10 years you’ve been here, what has been the pinnacle moment?

JL: For me, it’s the opportunity for the kids to have a floor exercise mat — for Kay to find this place, and for us to maneuverer enough to get this floor exercise mat for the kids to evolve.

It felt kind of confined at the other place. I wanted for them to experience more.

To have this facility, to allow the kids to reach a higher potential in the sport, we’re riding on that high.

KL: For me, being a class teacher, every single time somebody yells out, “I did it!” When they get their cartwheel for the first time, or whatever, to see them grow and learn is always a turn on, every single time.

For the new coaches that come in, until they experience that, they can get pretty frustrated. We teach 3-year-olds, you know? They feel that what they do doesn’t have any effect and they lose their motivation. But when a kid achieves a trick and they yell it out, it’s an amazing feeling.

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