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Decatur High’s new gymnastics program already finding success

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Decatur High’s new gymnastics program already finding success

Georgia Gary in action during Decatur’s first-ever gymnastics meet at Dunwoody High School. Photo by Keson Graham (@kesonthedhspics on Instagram)
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By David McFarland, contributor 

Decatur, GA — Just a year after being founded, Decatur High School’s newest sport is already up and running and finding success. The Bulldogs’ Gymnastics program is now set to enter its second season in action, and ready to build off a triumphant debut in 2023 in which Decatur won its first-ever meet and sent a representative to state.

Just a little under three years ago, however, this was all nothing more than a dream of then-sophomore Ahva Kamooneh. Head Coach Desiree Cabrices described the dawning days of gymnastics at DHS when she was approached by the Decatur student in 2021 about possibly becoming the coach of a gymnastics team.

She was initially hesitant to say yes due to her lack of gymnastics experience outside of her daughter’s YMCA classes, but after Kamooneh asked three other teachers without success, Cabrices accepted the challenge.

“When students approach me, and they have a vision, I love to support them,” she said.

With Cabrices working with Decatur’s Athletics Director Rodney Thomas to handle the bureaucratic side of things and Kamooneh garnering interest among her fellow students, the Gymnastics program slowly began to take shape. Before the actual team was anywhere near getting started, Cabrices was busy earning her coaching certification in gymnastics and attending three-hour-long Zoom meetings with fellow coaches across Georgia to determine the meet schedule. It was a “huge learning curve” according to Cabrices.

“You have to ask a lot of questions. It’s almost like another language being a coach,” she said. Even now, one season in, “It still feels foreign,” to Cabrices, who continues “learning what the role of a coach is and the expectations.”

One step at a time, however, a dream turned into reality. The team now competes in gymnastics meets with other schools to qualify for preliminaries, and based on its performance there, either the entire team or individual athletes can then qualify for the state tournament. Decatur’s first-ever season began early last year in a meet at Dunwoody High School, with the team finishing first place. While the team has experienced many special moments over the past year, that one stood out to co-coaches Maggie Kyle (a senior) and junior Georgia Gary as their favorite. And for good reason, as it marked the beginning of a new era at Decatur with a victory.

For Coach Cabrices, meanwhile, meet days have become as exhausting for her as they are for the athletes.

“The meets feel fast and furious,” Cabrices said. “My heart rate increases when my athletes are doing their skills. You get emotional when your athletes are doubting themselves and you’re standing with them right before they go on and motivating them, and then they do it. (It’s) thrilling and exciting, and a test of your nerves and wits. These girls are so strong and you have to be really focused and driven. You can not have doubt.”

And while winning that first-ever meet was special, the most important aspect of gymnastics to Coach Cabrices’ isn’t just the result, but rather all the sweat that went into it.

“What makes me feel a sense of pride at these meets is when I know these girls have been working so hard to get a skill and then they nail it,” she said. “And even if they don’t nail it, I‘m so proud that they attempted it. I want them to feel fulfilled and that they challenged themselves”

That challenge can lead to constant knocks and bruises — quite a few gymnasts are perennially taped up — and there’s always the danger of falling from bars and beams doing cartwheels and aerials. Along with the physical harm that comes hand-in-hand with gymnastics, Decatur had a bumpy path in its inaugural season. Kyle and Gary described how, for one, “we had trouble navigating the high-school scoring system, as it is very different than the junior olympic/xcel scoring that we are accustomed to. We are still figuring it out, but we have a much better understanding of it now.”

Coach Cabrices said there were transportation obstacles, namely struggling to find available school buses to go to meets. The team lacks a permanent home and competes with birthday parties for space at public gyms for practice.

Nonetheless, Decatur is only just getting started, and those obstacles are merely minor holdups in the face of the burgeoning momentum of the gymnastics program. It’s now up to 15 players and a team manager in 2024, a large contingent of which are freshmen and set to be around for the long haul.

They can take inspiration from the program’s creator, Kamooneh, who is now a freshman at college. In her only season on the team, she became the first Decatur player to qualify for the state tournament in gymnastics

“When she knew she needed certain points to make all-around (the state tournament), she brought it and upped it,” Coach Cabrices said. “There are skills that you kind of hold on to, and you only practice when you really need to.”

With a new season just days away, Coach Cabrices hopes the team can follow Kamooneh’s footsteps and qualify for prelims as a team, the tournament that leads to state. She also wants “to empower the athletes more,” creating a team environment with trust, chemistry, and team power. She wants to sustain Decatur’s atmosphere of supporting each other and camaraderie, on display everywhere from bus rides to when individual athletes win their competition at meets.

Decatur Gymnastics might just be getting started, but it’s already given the Bulldogs a lot to be proud of and will only get better and better.

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