After three decades, gravity-defiers move

TODAY marks the end of an era in this city. For the past 32 years, local children who dreamed of defying gravity have flipped, twisted and turned their way to fun, fitness and even fame at the Bendigo Gym Centre in McCrae Street.But for members of the club that has regularly produced national tumbling champions and counts Olympic diving gold medallist Chantelle Newbery among its alumni, the final cartwheel has been turned and the last somersault landed at the present site.The gym is moving today — to the YMCA stadium in Mundy Street — because the landlord has asked the group to vacate the property that has long been its home.And for many mums, dads, sons and daughters, things will never be quite the same.Tens of thousands of central Victorian kids have passed through the doors of that building over the years, learning artistic gymnastics, tumbling and body awareness skills via school programs and evening classes overseen by long-time instructor John Palmer.As a former gymnast, much of my childhood between 1978 and 1984 was spent training there and the venue holds special memories for me and many others.My first day, my first lycra leotard, my first backflip, my first broken bone, my first floor routine, my first gym competition — it all happened within those walls.I can still hear Mr P telling us to keep our “tummies and tails tight” to maintain balance as we walked on the beam, and every time I hear the song The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, I automatically perform a quick mental version of the Salute to the Sun warm-up exercise.Great friendships were also forged in the original gym at the top, and the huge downstairs extension added in 1980.When I run into people I haven’t seen for a while who shared these experiences, talk invariably turns back to our gym days.There’s even a Facebook group set up under the banner of “I was a member of John Palmer’s Bendigo Gymnastic Centre”.I’ve been back in that McCrae Street building a lot in recent times, but now I’m on the other side of the fence, watching as my daughter turns upside down developing her tumbling skills.Just being there takes me back in time and makes me want to jump up and join in (until I come to my senses and remember this is 2010 and I am not as young or flexible as I once was).This sense of nostalgia is not lost on Mr Palmer, either, and he just loves it when his former students return to say hello, or to introduce their little ones to his wonderful world of gym.One day, I was sitting on those hard wooden seats that make your bum go numb, watching a class next to two women who were gymnasts with me so many years ago.Mr P looked up and saw us and it was as if time had stood still — there we all were, same people, same room, same sort of activity going on around us, just a whole generation later.It’s those moments that will be lost forever when the gym moves into its new home.Sure, there will be more space, better parking, spectator facilities and new opportunities.But the soul of the old building will be missing, and for ex pupils like myself, the many memories made there will also be left behind.That gym was like Mary Poppins’ bag — from the outside, it looked quite ordinary, but what it held inside was truly amazing.Behind the unassuming little front door was kept an amazing array of equipment, used for exciting activities that encouraged kids to believe in themselves, challenged them to follow their dreams and helped them learn how to fly.Several Bendigo gymnasts did just that and ended up at the Australian Institute of Sport; quite a few of its tumblers have represented Australia at world titles; others have transferred the skills they learnt at the gym to other sports, including diving, with great success.These feats will still be possible at theYMCAbuilding, which is where Mr Palmer first began his program in 1976.After all, it’s the people who have the greater impact, not the bricks and mortar itself.The new facility will also offer new classes — kindergym, men’s 50+ fitness, and postnatal exercise and wellbeing.The school gym program, which caters for 11,000 students from about 60 schools a year, will remain at McCrae Street until the end of this year with a greater focus on general physical education before making the move as well.For the 300 or so after-school gym club members, classes at the old venue finished last night.Over the coming day and a half, the tumbling and training equipment will be transported several blocks away to its new home, ready for the first session there next Tuesday.I don’t know if I’ll ever feel quite the same way about gym once it starts at the Y, or if the new building will ever be able to compete with my rose-coloured recollections of the old.