By Lynette M Loomis
Training thousands of kids in more than gymnastics
Sarah Jane Clifford began her gymnastics career at age 3 when she was enrolled in acrobatics and ballet. Now 66, she has realized her lifelong dream—owning her own training center.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
Her journey was more circuitous. She began to help coach at 12 and went on to college at 15. Originally, she wanted to be a gym teacher.
“But at 4 feet 11 inches [tall], I was getting killed by the other kids,” she said. (She’s 5-foot 3 today.) “I changed to counseling but still had to take anatomy, biology, kinesiology and neurology. With that background, I could coach and when I received my certification, I also could judge gymnastics’ competitions.”
In 1994, Clifford took out a $1.2 million loan as well as smaller Small Business Administration loans. She said the timing was perfect because as a woman-owned business, lenders were looking for entrepreneurs with a solid business plan. She had been in a stable relationship for eight years with her now husband, Timothy.
“I would not agree to marry as it could put him at financial risk. I wanted the business to be stable,” she said.
Most business owners will tell you they don’t seem to have 10 spare minutes a day. From designing Gymnastics Training Center in Penfield to overseeing the building construction and making sure everything was up to code, it was a full-time job. But that was on top of coaching at another facility.
“It is not like once you get a building and some students you are done with the work. To remain a judge, I must recertify every four years. That requires learning new judging criteria, flying somewhere and spending four days in a hotel. We are shown actual competitions on video and asked to judge them. If we don’t pass, we can no longer judge gymnastics competitions,” she explained.
Kids can start gymnastics as soon as they can walk. The lessons have to do with having fun while learning to take turns, share, care about each other and follow directions as well as flexibility, stretching and skill progression. The foam pit is always a favorite of the class activity for kids. Dance and gymnastics programs also are available to women and men.
Mature adults enjoy Gymnastics Training Center. One of the dance class members is 69 and another is a gymnast who still works out in the adult class at age 63. Even people who leave gymnastics still use flexibility, courage and the confidence they learned in gymnastics in other sports. For example, her daughter, Candice, played softball, basketball and tennis, and her other daughter, Emily, was into field hockey and swimming.
“Both my daughter and my grandchildren live in Arizona so like a lot of grandparents, we do a lot of Facetime to stay connected,” said Clifford.
She stays active when not at the center. She loves horse jumping. She used to jump as high as 6 feet and now continues this sport at heights between 3 and 4 feet. She has 1,000 or so books all related to her field, with her favorite being “Bio Mechanical Analysis of Women’s Gymnastics” by Gerald S. George. Her philosophy is that she should learn something every day from either reading, watching CNN or podcasts.
Another activity that takes up time is her involvement on many boards. They include current positions in the International Association for Child Development Programs for which she is a board member and industry ambassador. She also is recording secretary and board member of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association and Global Sport Rules Committee and Sport Resource Team member for Special Olympics International.
There are many more committees and boards in her career.
“I like to keep things moving. We are all busy people and need to stick to the agenda to the work done to support worthy causes,” she explained.
Numerous awards are part of her resume.
“Each time I am recognized I feel proud of all the kids my staff has helped along the way. We are a true team,” she said.
Pre-COVID-19, there were between 1,500 and 2,000 students enrolled each year at Gymnastics Training Center. Post-COVID-19, numbers are between 1,000 and 1,500 annually with 27 staff members, most of whom are part-time.
“I have been doing this for so long that we have the children of the children in classes. I love it when a child or an adult comes up to me and says I taught them or their kids and how much they learned from it or how much fun they had. That’s what it’s about for me,” she said.
Clifford is a strong believer in giving back.
“It’s about love, kindness and identifying talent,” she said. “You want each student to feel good about their achievement, not just the victories.”
For any person that is important, but it has special meaning for people who are training for the Special Olympics. This summer she was plannng to take one male and one female to Orlando, Florida, to the USA Special Olympics.
“I am not sure who is more excited, the students or me. But everyone at Gymnastics Training Center is immensely proud of them,” she said. “I‘ve been given the gift to love what I do and do what I love. I am grateful.”