Gymnasts from all around the country this weekend will descend upon San Jose for a tournament of champions with flipping acrobatics and gravity-defying tricks. One Santa Clara gym is sending two star-studded junior athletes to the battlefield to demonstrate their elite mastery of the artistic sport.
Airborne Gymnastics is sending senior elite gymnast Nola Matthews of Gilroy, 16, and junior elite gymnast Tyler Turner of San Jose, 14, to compete for the podium this weekend at San Jose’s SAP Center. Turner is part of two dozen junior women who will all compete in four events—uneven bars, vault, floor and balance beam. The competitors of this weekend also vie for world championship team spots in October.
“They’re both in a really good place, gymnastically and mentally,” Airborne coach Cleo Washington said. “I think we’re good. We’re pretty prepared.”
At this elite level, athletes like Matthews and Turner must demonstrate a mastery of style, difficulty and consistency. As teens, they are in the median age of athletes duking out spots in higher-level junior competitions, with Olympic athletes like Simone Biles and Sunisa Lee holding down the top senior competitions. They dedicate 20 to 30 hours per week or more training while spending the majority of the rest of their time in home-school.
Matthews is the 2023 Pan American uneven bars champion after excelling in the individual and team competitions in Medellin, Colombia in May this year. She scored fourth overall in the Core Hydration Classic in Chicago earlier this month as well. She is vying for a spot in the U.S. Olympics in Paris next year, but must complete an upcoming World’s selection camp later this year, too.
Turner, the younger of the two, also wants a chance at the higher echelons of the sport, recently tying for 11th overall at the Core Hydration Classic earlier this month, scoring well in the vault and uneven bars in past events.
The two are shy but focused as they train in their Santa Clara gym. They are quick to crack a joke, or bond over their adoration for Taylor Swift, in between reps. As they prep for battle, their class of about a dozen young girls switch between training, watching and encouraging each other to simulate a performance under pressure.
Matthews and Turner will both be competing on all four apparatus this weekend.
Washington said her athletes’ mental preparation is top of mind right now, as they have to visualize a perfect routine for each event. The prior weeks leading up to this week’s competition was dedicated to physical prep—drilling proper extensions on pikes, tightening tucks, generating spinning momentum on bars, precision on beams, and countless other minute tweaks.
She keeps a watchful eye on the whole gym, offering quick adjustments such as, “straight arms,” and “big,” and “pull those shoulders back,” and “accelerate more,” when needed.
Each day of practice consists of countless drills—three-count hold leg lifts, light to intense stretching, jumps, flips and twists. Every movement must be drilled critically and perfectly. One perfect repetition means one step closer for the young gymnasts’ dreams of glory.
When the dust settles at the end of the competition, Airborne coach and co-owner Melanie Ruggiero said she wants Matthews and Turner to “relax and enjoy the moment.”
“I think what makes us successful is we have really leaned in and adopted the ‘village’ concept,” coach Ruggiero said. And by that, she means the cliche: ‘It takes a village.’
For her athletes to be successful, Ruggiero said they teach self-discipline, time management, self-confidence and “empowering kids through sport.” That takes “a village,” which means the women-led coaching and management team at Airborne has all eyes on their kids. She is joined by her sister and co-owner, Leah Tanquary, and coaches Washington, Melissa Metcalf and Tonya Piacente.
Kids come to the gym shy, or lacking in confidence, Ruggiero said, but they learn how to make mistakes and fix them as they dedicate more time to their craft. They learn how to succeed with an “incredible amount of work ethic,” Ruggiero said.
With all the preparation they’ve done, Ruggiero said she wants to see her athletes perform and feel success based on the hard work they’ve put in. She added that though developing Olympians would be nice, it’s “more of an afterthought” and what comes first is a love for the sport. Airborne has sent gymnasts to the junior Olympic national team for several years starting in 1997 and most recently in 2021.
“It takes a lot of sacrifice on the families’ part,” Ruggiero said. “If you don’t love it, there’s absolutely no way you can perform at those levels.