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Auburn Gymnastics Center is a passion for owner

By: Gloria Young, Journal Staff Writer
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When Natalie Otis discovered gymnastics in third grade, it was by sheer accident. But the sport clicked with her immediately. “My parents needed a spot for us to go after school,” she said this week. “My sister and I did gymnastics in the cafeteria. That gave us the bug.” When the two sisters were ready for something more challenging, they got involved in competitive gymnastics at a gym in Sacramento and worked up through the highest levels it offered. “I was spending every day in the gym,” Otis said. “My parents made a lot of sacrifices for us to compete.” Then, after she stopped competing, she got into coaching. These days, Otis is a wife and mother of two children. But her passion for gymnastics hasn’t faded. In May, she and her husband, Nathan Otis, purchased Auburn Gymnastics Center, located in the DeWitt Center. Otis had been looking to buy a gym when she returned to California after living in New Hampshire for five years. It was in New Hampshire that her vision for a gymnastics program really crystallized. “I really got to see how a slick organization was run,” she said. “They had team programs, special needs programs — all these things I had never seen in action and never seen done so well.” The program even included sending students to Texas to train at the ranch of internationally famous gymnastics coach Bela Karoly, she said. When Otis found out Auburn Gymnastics Center was for sale, she met with the owner and discovered they shared a lot of the same philosophy about the sport. “It felt like a family place, a warm place,” she said. “I felt it could work for us.” But having her own gymnastics center was just the beginning. She also wanted to incorporate a special needs programs. In June, a month after purchasing the center, Otis received a grant from the El Dorado Hills-based Guiding Hand, Inc. to provide the funding. Currently she has 25 children enrolled in the special needs program and 36 have participated, she said. In the application process, parents identify the child’s needs. “A child with autism may need to interact socially with other kids,” Otis explained. “Or parents with children who have sensory difficulties might be looking for them to work with different types of apparatuses, like rings or trampoline. They write what they’re looking for and describe the special needs.” Based on that, Otis integrates the children into the regular program or schedules one-on-one sessions with an instructor. Her sister, Jennifer Christenson, does much of the coaching for the special-needs program. “I really have a soft spot in my heart (for these kids),” Otis said. “Their lives are more joyful because they come and do gymnastics with us. (It is seeing) the smile on these kids’ faces. The kids who are nonverbal, they’re smiling and happy to be there. With all the struggles for them, our gymnastics program is a joyful place for them.” One of the children in the program is Auburn resident Manijeh Ghorbani’s son, Zahl. Zahl, 7, has autism and a muscle/nerve disorder, so he’s not as strong and his balance is not a good as other children of his age group, Ghorbani said. Zahl gets one-on-one sessions with Christenson. “He loved it right away. They engaged with him immediately,” Ghorbani said. “He’s into jumping a lot on the trampoline. She’s kind of teaching him how to use his upper body.” Christenson also works with him on three-syllable commands like “get the ball.” Zahl has been in the program three months and Ghorbani plans to keep him involved in it. “They’re extremely generous,” she said. “It is a great place to be. I’m glad he’s around typically developing kids. It’s just very healthy fun for him.” Zahl’s success is mirrored throughout the program. “When I bought the gym, we had 100 kids,” Otis said. “We’ve grown about 150 percent. It’s all about the coaching and the relationships we’re building.” She’s seen accomplishments in other areas, too. “This has already been a fantastic year (eight months) for the gym,” she said in an e-mail. “We got our special needs program off the ground. We bought four big pieces of equipment including a new spring floor, an inflatable mountain and a tumbling track, and we had a state champion in our first competitive season under new ownership.” The Journal’s Gloria Young can be reached at gloriay@goldcountrymedia.com or comment.