I sat semi-slouched in a folding chair on the second floor of what looked to be an old warehouse, overlooking a few kids, likely preteens, defying gravity as they vaulted over wooden elements and swung from metal bars in the parkour park below. I was seated in between two well-dressed women — their moms, I figured, based on their silent applause each time one of the adolescents managed to nail whatever skill they were practicing. I, on the other hand, was decked out in whatever athleisure-wear felt appropriate for the reason I was there that evening: to try out an adult gymnastics class.
My love for gymnastics goes back more than 25 years to the 1996 Summer Olympics U.S. gymnastics team, known as the Magnificent Seven. After the Games wrapped up, I recall sprinting to grab Dominique Moceanu’s autobiography off the shelf at my elementary school’s Scholastic Book Fair like it was the hottest toy of the holiday season. I was 10, and I wanted nothing more than to be a gymnast.
That dream never materialized, but there I was, nearly three decades later, with that same spark, one that had reignited yet again as it usually did in the months following the excitement of the Olympics. While I wasn’t going to kid myself by thinking I could ever pull off a Yurchenko double pike à la Simone Biles, maybe I hadn’t aged out of a back handspring on a cushy springboard floor.
I had been excited for the class, but now, realizing I was next to two grown women about my age (maybe a few years older) who were doing what most reasonable adults our age would, and probably should, be doing — sitting safely in a chair while their fearless, nimble kiddos performed outrageous stunts — I began to second-guess myself, thinking “What am I doing here?”
Just then, a voice shouted, “Adult gymnastics!” And my hand shot up, a little too enthusiastically, as I turned around to see my new gymnastics coach waving me over to begin the class. The other women glanced at me briefly, their hands on their laps. Were they, too, wondering what I was doing there?
I was at Urban Evolution, a 10,000-square-foot fitness facility located in a nondescript commercial building just off I-395 in Alexandria. It used to be a spa, then a food service location, Urban Evolution’s owner Bill Wotowiec later told me. But now it’s a destination for kids and adults alike looking to move their bodies in a way that a traditional gym or most club sports just can’t offer. Aside from gymnastics, Urban Evolution offers classes in “nontraditional sports” like freerunning and aerial silks. For me, and I assume many others, it’s a chance to break free from the confines of a treadmill or a defined position in a team sport. It’s a chance to play and explore.
My coach for the night, Alyda, didn’t waste any time. This was the “intro to gymnastics” class, a prerequisite for all gymnastics classes, which I took as a clever way for staff to make sure I wasn’t going to seriously injure myself on this journey. So Alyda had exactly 60 minutes to deem me coordinated.
She asked me if I had any experience with gymnastics. I replied by proudly telling her I was a cheerleader from first grade through high school and was on my high school’s gymnastics team for a year. “But now I’m 36,” I added, somewhat sullenly. She asked me what type of physical activity I do now. “I’m a runner,” I said. Then she asked about any injuries I currently had, forcing me to break the news that I’ve had tendinosis in my left Achilles for more than two years — probably not the best injury to have in a high-impact sport like gymnastics.
But this was adult gymnastics, Alyda emphasized. While the class is geared toward students ages 15 and up, she teaches it for grown-ups who “can’t bounce back like 3-year-olds.”
We started with a warm-up: a quick jog and some drills to test my hip mobility, which, surprisingly, is very good despite spending the past 14 years in a desk job. Then there were more drills to test the strength of my glutes, quads, and abdomen. (All of the above would be sore for about 72 hours post-class.) The warm-up lasted for what felt like half of the hour we had together, but that was intentionally designed given how important these core skills are in gymnastics.
Then it was time to learn how to fall. “That’s brilliant,” I thought to myself. In cheerleading, I learned to fall out of a stunt so I wouldn’t hurt myself or my teammates. I learned how to fall in snowboarding, too, so I wouldn’t break a wrist tumbling down a mountain. Falling is inevitable when learning any sport that involves movement and momentum. And when you’re my age, it seems to happen more often and hurt a little more.
Alyda taught me how to appropriately stick a landing, followed by how to fall forward and backward. Looking back, I should’ve asked her how to fall sideways, too.
The introductory class wrapped up with forward rolls, an easy trick most of us learned as kids but is surprisingly a lot scarier as an adult when you know all too well how debilitating a tweaked neck can be.
At the end of the class, Alyda handed me a purple rubber wristband declaring me a level-one gymnast. When I got home, I proudly showed it off to my husband, saying “I passed!” The look of relief on his face said it all. I mean, we had joked just hours before that we may end up in the ER that night. Then I told him I’d be going back soon because I had bought a package of 10 classes. His expression turned to a combination of “you do you” and “I’m happy you’re happy.”
When I asked Wotowiec, who purchased the facility in late 2020 from its original owners, why Urban Evolution decided to offer gymnastics for adults, he explains it was because it made sense for the facility’s community.
“Most of [our students] are people who like to try out new skills. We have always had a diverse group of students interested in different forms of movement that tend to overlap, and many started with a background in gymnastics,” he says, adding that the classes are focused on helping students learn in a “fun, non-intimidating, non-competitive atmosphere.”
Two days after my first class, I was back at Urban Evolution for another, eager to try new skills and practice what I had already learned. I was hooked, especially knowing that I wasn’t alone in this strange quest to learn gymnastics as an adult. After repeatedly questioning my motives, I finally knew exactly what I was doing here.
This story originally ran in our August issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.