Photo by Heather Middleton
By Johnny Jackson
Locust Grove resident Collin Pennell managed to keep his nerves in check as he contorted and flipped across the lighted stage.
"I was so excited," said the 11-year-old gymnast, who had a small guest role in a recent production of Cirque USA.
Complementing a cast of 10 professional dancers and acrobats, Pennell held his own in a private performance for local dignitaries at The Ritz Carlton, in Amelia Island, Fla.
"He was fantastic," said Bill Fassbender, meetings and special events associate director at The Ritz-Carlton. "He took to it like a fish to water."
Niekko Chin, owner and creative director of Cirque USA, added: "He did a great job."
Chin, a gymnast himself, recalled his childhood discoveries of gymnastics and tumbling. He spoke about it by phone recently, sitting in a hotel room in Hampton, N.Y., awaiting rehearsals for a Fourth of July theater show in Long Island, New York.
Chin said he began training in gymnastics at 7 years old, when his parents enrolled him into a gymnastics class at the YMCA. He cultivated a business from gymnastics, after about a decade of experience in the discipline.
"I just wanted to have our own medium," he said.
The creative director said he started the Orlando, Fla.-based Cirque USA in 1992. The company delivers audiences theater and acrobatics in its multiple-act shows. It now has offices in five states, with roughly 250 acrobats and dancers.
Chin said that, while he deals regularly with professional acrobats and dancers, he was impressed by young Pennell's zest for acrobatics during the 45-minute show on June 13.
"He's excellent," said Chin. "He was very flexible, easy going, and professional. All the cast took a liking to him. He has great potential."
Chin explained that the pre-teen has an "all-around" facility to do well as a tumbler, and aerial acrobat. Pennell, he said, also has the advantage of starting his study of gymnastics early on -- at about two years old.
"I think I'd like to be one of the Cirque people," added Pennell. "It was a really good experience. It was really fun. I like doing all kinds of round- off back handsprings."
Pennell said he learned just this February how to execute a proper back flip on the floor, as opposed to training on a trampoline. The Level VI gymnast has trained under the direction of Paul Littlejohn since he was four years old. Littlejohn coaches competitive gymnastics at World Xtreme Gymnastics, of McDonough.
"He's really good," Pennell said of his coach. "He makes it really easy to learn."
Learning is perhaps made easier for Pennell, who acknowledges he was preconditioned as an infant to physically pursue greater heights.
"I would always climb everything," he said. "I thought it was really cool trying to get up to the ceiling."
His mother, Mendee Rock, confirmed the pre-teen's early abilities.
"He was a born climber," Rock said. "At two, he would look at the ceiling and say, 'I can't get up there,' and he would climb the door frame. Anything you can think of that might lead to somewhere high, he was climbing. So, I decided to get him into it [gymnastics]."
Rock said her son has always had an affinity for the comic-book character, Spiderman. So, she chose gymnastics as a safe alternative to focus the super-hero fanatic's energy and abilities.
Many youth at the local World Xtreme Gymnastics train for similar reasons. Tammy Yarbrough keeps her eight-year-old son, Landon, involved in gymnastics. She said for the past two years, she has taken her son to the gym three days a week, for three-hour training sessions in gymnastics with a slew of other boys.
They all say they would like to be in the Olympics some day," said Yarbrough.
Yarbrough said her son trains in gymnastics to improve his core body strength and balance for wrestling, a sport in which he has competed since he was three years old.
"Now, he lives for gymnastics," said the mother, adding she has noticed the sport has improved her son's discipline and respect for others. "Most of the kids that do [participate in gymnastics] do other sports very well," said Yarbrough.
Collin Pennell's recent performance with Cirque USA was partly driven by his desire to do well for his father, according to Collin's mother, Mendee Rock.
Rock said her son's father, Michael Pennell, was stricken with advanced heart disease. She said he suffered sepsis the week of her son's performance.
"Absolutely, he was performing for his dad," said Rock.