In one corner of Pete Arenas’ office at Georgia Elite Gymnastics, there’s a photograph of a smiling young woman shaking hands with then-President Bill Clinton in the oval office. That was 1998.
The young woman, Kim Arnold, wasn’t just any young woman, however. Arnold, a member of the Georgia gymnastics team, had just helped the Gym Dogs claim their fourth national championship, and like all collegiate champions, Arnold got the chance to travel to the White House to greet America’s head-of-state.
Arnold stood out among the rest of her Gym Dog teammates, though, because of her individual successes. While she’d helped win the team title in 1998, she’d taken the individual all-around national championship in both 1997 and 1998 to go along with a solo beam championship during the team’s national championship run in that magical ‘98 campaign. “In her day, she was one of the best gymnasts in the world,” Keith Phillips, a fellow Georgia Elite Gymnastics coach, said.
She has the hardware to prove it. Back in Arenas’ office, in another corner, there’s two round, silver plates positioned for anyone who walks in the door to see. Scribbled along the base of the plaques reads, “For Outstanding Excellence in Women’s Gymnastics.” Right above that, in fancy scroll, it reads, “The Honda Award,” which goes to the top gymnast in the nation each season. “That is the Heisman Trophy for gymnastics,” Phillips said.
To reach national champion-level gymnastics—or even loftier goals of the Olympics—there’s somewhat of a blueprint for gymnasts to follow.
First and foremost, it’s all gymnastics, all the time. For many, schooling takes place at home. Academic lessons are squeezed in between 40-hour workweeks on the bars, beam, vault and floor. Arnold followed suit. By age 11, Arnold had already earned elite- level status, a tremendously high honor at such a young age, but one that came with its own sacrifices. “A teammate and I left home together,” Kim said. “It sounds a little crazy, but it worked out. I ended up staying there until I came to college.”
Arnold wouldn’t trade her youth gymnastics experience for anything, though. Originally from Oregon, Arnold moved out to Arizona at age 11 to become a member of the Eaton’s Desert Devils gym. “They were able to produce these amazing gymnasts, while still making it enjoyable,” Kim said. Her parents couldn’t keep up with the finances and scheduling that comes along with junior national and international gymnastics, so Arnold stayed with coaches.
It was all part of the chase. Arnold knew early on how she wanted to spend her life. She’d picked up gymnastics at an early age, but clearly had instincts for it unlike most girls her age. By the time she’d reached elite status by 11, her sights were set on the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where she hoped to add to the United States’ already-illustrious gymnastics history.
Once again, Arnold followed the blue- print. She began competing for the U.S. National Team at the junior level, and she remained on the team as she moved into her senior-level career. However, in 1992 Arnold realized that she would just barely miss the five-person squad. In an Olympics trials qualifier, she fell on beam — her best event — which dropped her to 18th, just out of the 14-person field for the Olympic trials. “I think most elites, their long-term goal is to make the Olympics,” Kim said. “That was hard, just because it was one of my best events.”
Her Olympic dream was shot, but Arnold had many other goals she was happy to try and accomplish instead. She immediately became perhaps the hottest commodity in the college gymnastics market with the best programs in the nation in queue for her services. She landed at the University of Georgia in 1994 under then- coach Suzanne Yoculan, where they worked together to add to the legendary head coach’s flurry of championships.
It’s also where she met Pete Arenas, a Bulldog baseball player. The two married after graduation. They moved to Oconee County, where Kim — now Arenas — gave birth to their first child. Pete began his career in sales for Horton Components, a housing manufacturing company based in Eatonton, Ga. He sold pre-finished moulding and decorative panels for some time. One night, while he was traveling for work, he received a phone call from Kim, querying about a potential business investment that would detour his professional life forever. “She called me and said ‘I think we have a chance. I think we need to buy this gym and have our kids in it. We’re going to be here all the time anyway,’” Pete said. “So I called the owner, and he was excited to hear from me.”
From her days at Eaton’s Desert Devils in Arizona, Kim knows what it takes to operate a national-caliber youth gym. It requires an atmosphere, a breeding ground of sorts, that encourages hard work over everything else, one that discourages laziness that can limit athletes in a sport built around constant repetition. “The kids are the key to success at any gym,”
Pete said. “The hardworking kid that has the athleticism is going to shine.”
But, back in 2006, that wasn’t what the Arenas family was seeing. Their oldest daughter was going through junior gymnastics and their other daughter, Elena, had just turned four and was about to begin her trek through compulsory-level gymnastics.
They trained at a gym on the Eastside of Athens, once owned by Jay Clark before he took over as head coach of the Gym Dogs. Clark’s successor bought the gym despite owning one in Rockdale County as well. That attempt to double-dip restricted the gym’s potential. Something needed to change, and the Arenas’ knew just how to fix it. “I knew exactly what Kim wanted to do with the gym,” Pete said. “It was similar to the environment she came from at Desert Devils. With all that, we started cracking the whip a little bit.”
Pete, on the other hand, didn’t have as much experience — aside from watching Kim and his daughters compete — but he was eager to learn. He stepped down from his sales job so that he and Kim could open their own gym, Georgia Elite Gymnastics, full-time in 2006.
In the early years under their ownership, the gym suffered many of the same struggles from before, as Pete tried to learn more about the sport. All the while, positive signs started to show in their attempt to engrain a certain gym culture. The kids were buying into their system, and Kim and Pete had buying on their minds, too.
Up until two years ago, Georgia Elite remained at its Eastside Athens location. But when the land just off Highway 129 in Watkinsville went on the market, Pete and Kim jumped on the opportunity to build their own gym and upgrade from a 7,000- square-foot box to a 15,000-square-foot gymnastics resort—two handfuls of beams, a wall lined with uneven bars, multiple vault lanes, two open floors, foam pits and a second-story viewing area for spectators. “This gym dwarfs that gym,” Phillips said. “This is one of the nicest in the country. There’s some that are a lot bigger, maybe a little bit fancier. But this is a gymnastic dream to have.”
It’s yet another reason, on a long list, of how Georgia Elite Gymnastics attracts some of the best gymnasts in the nation. As Phillips points out, Georgia Elite had proven itself to his family prior to the facility upgrade.
His family lived in south Georgia up until three years ago. Phillips’ daughters competed in events against Georgia Elite teams, and Phillips coached alongside Pete. When his daughters made it clear they wanted to pursue collegiate gymnastics careers, he knew Georgia Elite was the right choice so much so that he uprooted his life and moved to the Watkinsville area to coach with Pete.
He’s not the only one. Girls from all over the country—Virginia, Texas, Maryland— have taken notice and moved all the way to Georgia just to learn from Kim and Pete.
Some girls even travel three hours a day from Atlanta for classes. Coaches from all over the world are taking part in the Georgia Elite upswing, too, including a Russian instructor who took her first job in America to coach alongside Pete and Kim.
The move paid off for Phillips, at least, when his twins verbally committed to North Carolina State this past season. “I guess you could say they got their dream,” Phillips said. “We moved here for it, and they got it.”
Add the Phillips twins to a loaded list of college talent at Georgia Elite. Morgan Reynolds and Lindsey Cheek, both current members of the Gym Dogs, came up through the Georgia Elite program.
Sami Durante, the daughter of Gym Dog head coach Danna Durante, is set to join the Georgia program in 2017.
All in all, Georgia Elite has eight gymnasts already verbally committed to Division I schools with many more to come, it seems. “We’ve had over 27 colleges here in the past two years,” Phillips said. “You’re talking Auburn, LSU, Georgia. The top teams in the country come here.”
That recruitment fervor will only continue to expand in the coming months, as the 7th and 8th graders move into the recruiting cycle. In early June, the three-time defending national championship Florida gymnastics team visited Georgia Elite, as did Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin. That level of national exposure is likely to continue with this new crop, many of whom made up Georgia Elite’s back-to- back-to-back level 10 state championship team.
The gym’s rise to prominence has made major leaps in recent years. To go along with the level 10 dynasty, Georgia Elite claimed state championships at level 1, level 2 and level 4. It was named the USA Georgia Gymnastics Club of the Year and the Region 8 Gym Club of the Year, a region spanning the entire southeast.
And perhaps the crown jewel of all of Georgia Elite’s accomplishments: Elena Arenas, daughter of Pete and Kim, became the first gymnast at Georgia Elite to qualify as a United States junior elite gymnast. “We named the gym Georgia Elite Gymnastics because we wanted an elite gymnast,” Pete said.
Elena stood next to the uneven bars and her father. Everyone else at the 2015 World Olympic Gymnastics Academy Classic in Texas had already finished all four routines. Elena had finished three with only bars remaining. She knew everyone’s score and knew she’d need to post a 13.7 to edge out her competitor in the junior international elite classification. In front of the head of the U.S. national team, Marta Karoyli, Elena, instead, landed a 13.9 to claim the overall crown. “To know that she needed to hit it, and she hit it,” Pete said, “All I can say is, it was really cool to watch.”
Those types of fairy-tale moments have morphed Elena’s reputation in the junior gymnastics world. By outlasting some of the world’s best talent at the WOGA meet, she immediately found herself near the epicenter of Karoyli’s national team radar.
So Elena—and, as a result, Pete—travel down to a renowned gym in Texas called The Ranch on a monthly basis to work out with Karoyli and other national team officials with the other juniors that Karoyli considers to be “the best girls” in the nation.
The Ranch is a relatively small facility in a relatively low-key area in the Lone Star State, but it’s loaded with Olympic history. “Kim was on the same path back in the day trying to make the Barcelona Olympics,” Phillips said.
These monthly visits give Pete a major breadth of coaching knowledge to bring back to the gym, but they also give Elena a chance to measure her progress with the other 20 junior elite gymnasts across the country. Naturally, Elena’s competitive spirit, which is bred even further by The Ranch’s intense culture, always brings her back to Watkinsville with new skills and mindsets. “She’s a tough, tough little competitor,” Pete said. “She’s ready to go when it’s time. It breeds excellence when you go to something like that.”
With success comes pressure, and Elena seems to be starting to feel it, probably something Karoyli and Co. are eager to watch unfold in the coming years. Pete says, however, that it’s too early to let that pressure start mounting. In the junior phase of international elite, it’s about fine-tuning skills, adding new ones and repeating the process. A year from now, when Elena closes in on the transition from junior elite to senior elite, she should be more concerned with hitting every single event at every single meet. “This year, we’re just adding a lot of new skills and hoping to do well,” Pete said. “Next year, we’re adding new skills having to do well.”
In a similar conviction, Pete thinks it’s too early to be thinking the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, though he concedes that, “the elite pool is what they’re choosing from, and there’s only 21 in the country right now.” The Olympic Committee recently decreased the number of national team members for each country from five to four in an effort to neutralize the competitive advantage across the globe. For American gymnasts, it only further clutters a race to roster spots in the most competitive nation in international gymnastics. “This year is still probably a little premature to say she’s at the top,” Pete said. “Five years from now, that’s a long way. It’s crazy to even think it.”
Regardless, Elena’s future — much like that of Georgia Elite Gymnastics — is bright. And wherever her gymnastics career takes her, depending on another too-early- to-call event, Elena might find herself following her mother’s footsteps again, as she strolls into the oval office to shake hands with President into the Clinton.
Benjamin Wolk is a sports reporter for The Oconee Enterprisenewspaper in Watkinsville, Ga.