Knowing how important it was to engage kids during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, Mike Winburn and Julie Hutchens came up with creative ways to keep their respective gyms–Win Kids and Excite Gym and Cheer– open.
While their buildings were closed, the friendly competitors stayed connected to kids through online classes, videos, and outside activities.
“Those were a lot of fun,” recalled Winburn, who opened Win Kids in Flower Mound in 1998. “The kids would engage and that was our goal to not give them a lot of disengaged time. We wanted them to feel part of their sport. They belonged to a sport, they are Win Kids and we wanted to keep them connected.”
“We thought we’ll just roll our mats outside and do tumbling and everything else in the fresh air,” said Hutchens, owner of Excite, which opened in Flower Mound in 2001 and moved to its current Highland Village location in 2004. “We did separation, cardio, running, everything we could do outside. It was funny because the kids signed up immediately. They wanted to do something.”
When in-person classes returned they were limited to about half capacity which meant parents weren’t always allowed to watch. But soon thereafter, both facilities have safely returned to pre-pandemic membership levels.
Win Kids offers a variety of programs for children up to age 16. These include tumbling, gymnastics, Ninja Warriors and an academic pre-school. Swimming is available through partner Emler Swim School. Activities begin with parent-child program for kids as young as 18 months and move to Gym Jumpers for ages 2-3 without parents.
“Our core is 5-6 year olds,” Winburn said. “That’s the age when kids are starting gymnastics and Ninjas. We also have tap jazz, ballet and dance and piano with recitals.
“Girls’ gymnastics and Ninjas are our two biggest programs. We have a large competitive girls’ gymnastics program with about 70 kids. We also have a tumbling and trampoline team.”
Win Kids’ newest major program is the Ninja Warriors which opened in late 2019 after a major remodeling and purchase of special equipment. With Ninjas, children as young as 3 complete obstacle courses where they learn high energy, strength, balance, coordination and how to safely move through the variety of challenges.
Win Kids also offers private birthday parties on weekends where groups have areas of the gym to themselves with dedicated coaches. There’s also Parents Nights Out on Fridays and Saturdays.
“The kids who were more involved came back first, the team kids and Ninja Warrior program,” Winburn said. “We implemented quite a lot of safety protocols.”
Besides everyone over age 10 wearing masks and maintaining physical distancing, those protocols have included temperature checks, extra cleaning measures and using hand sanitizers before and after classes.
“We did a lot of research on disinfectants to make sure we had a germicide that could handle all of the surfaces that these kids would touch,” Winburn said. “We bought foggers and shut down the water fountains.”
Excite, which features cheerleading, gymnastics, tumbling and preschool, also took every possible precaution required to safely open. That included pockets to hold beverages, foggers and sprayers all required because Hutchens estimates about 2,000 feet pass through their facilities each week among the 800 families who belong.
“Keeping the cleanliness is a full-time job,” Hutchens said.
Once the indoor facility was allowed to open most participants returned but without parents there to watch them. That made it easier to comply with the 50 percent capacity rule.
“My staff was amazing. They jumped right on it,” Hutchens said. “For the recreational programs, we did separate videos and put out the training even for the preschool kids to do at home. We also rented out some of our equipment if they wanted to take it home for a week. Then our team coaches did personal Zoom workout calls to train team athletes at home. Plus, we also did a bunch of training and conditioning videos. We did as much as we could to keep them entertained.”
Excite has about 13 competitive cheer teams with 225-250 total participants plus 100+ gymnasts. Overall, it serves youth from age 18 months through college.
Both businesses are looking forward to the return of summer camps this year. In addition to their regular classes, Win Kids will feature one summer program based on science and arts and another all around the Olympics taking place in July in Tokyo.
“We’re looking forward to summer. Camps are the big thing,” Winburn said. “The Olympic theme is for the grade school age kids. We’ll have something for the little ones called Care Kids Clubhouse which is a morning program with their own space. For age 5 and above are Win Camps – three or six hours the latter of which is called The Works.”
There also will be splash programs where kids go outside on Win Kids Mountain – carved out to do slides and other water-based activities and tennis.
“Camps are all about fun with friends and activities,” Winburn said.
Excite also will offer a complete array of summer camp options for every age group. Kids up to fifth grade can take part in week-long themes including Disney, water activities, dinosaurs, science and others plus skill specific camps for the competitive youth starting June 7. Those in competitive ranks can attend physical skills camps. Like Win Kids, this will be in addition to regular classes so the facility will be a beehive of safe activity.
“As I tell everyone we’ll start rolling the direction one way and if it rolls the other way we’ll roll back,” Hutchens said. “We’ll adjust as we see the times. If we have to stop it, we stop it. We now know the system.”
In the meantime, Excite cheer and gymnastics teams will be traveling to a number of events in April and May at award competitions and meets plus an annual senior trip given to College Cheer Nationals in Daytona.
“We are unique. A lot of gyms are megas,” Hutchens said. “We wanted to be personal and unique because every kid is unique, every parent is unique. We don’t cookie-cut our families.”
Excite has trained students who have gone on to cheer at schools like Oklahoma State University, University of Oklahoma, Navarro College, Trinity University, Sam Houston University, University of North Texas and the University of Texas-Arlington.
“There are not a lot of gyms that are successful in two major sports, especially cheer and gymnastics,” Hutchens said. “It’s really fun to see how much both programs support each other.”