Mikulak Gymnastic Camp

Leslie and I had saved up to go to the U.S. Gymnastics Olympic Trials Competition in St. Louis.  I called several times for tickets, but it was clear that they had sold out long before we even started trying to buy them.  Out of the blue, we heard that Sam Mikulak was hosting a gymnastics workshop for young gymnasts in Denver. The website said these were sold out as well, but when I emailed the coordinator to ask to be put on a waitlist, he said a spot had opened up for our son, Leighton.  We were thrilled to take the opportunity.

A few days before the workshop, the coordinator Jordan Gaarenstroom, emailed out to say that his photographer couldn’t make it, and he wondered if anyone had camera experience and could come take photos of the workshop from the floor so that the parents might have some photos of their kids that were up-close.  At first, I didn’t even bother volunteering.  I have no professional photography experience – it’s just a hobby of mine that I happen to enjoy.  I thought surely some parent would also work as a professional and offer to take the photos.  Leslie encouraged me to send an honest email anyway, and when I did my offer was accepted.  

I can only write for my experience.  Leighton really seemed to learn a lot and enjoy the event.  For my part, I was a nervous wreck driving him down to the event.  I knew I didn’t have the best equipment for sports photography, and that between chalk-dust floating in the air, and fluorescent lighting overhead, I might have difficulty getting shots that were in focus with good exposure.  Also, I admit that I was somewhat star-struck.  These are guys I watch on TV, admiring them as prime examples of fitness while I eat chips and salsa from the comfort of my couch.  When Sam Mikulak emerged from the backseat of his ride and walked across the parking lot into the gym, I thought I have no business photographing this guy up close.  And then I thought, man, he is way shorter than he appears on TV.

By the middle of the event, though, I had found my stride, taking photos right and left and trying to capture as many kids’ faces as I could for the parents who were watching in a balcony above the gymnasium.  I still felt pressure, and some of the limitations of my equipment, but I knew I was getting some good shots, too.  Looking back, I wish now that I had abandoned the idea of trying to capture that incredible, super-high shutter speed photo of a face giving maximum effort while doing a back-handspring.  With my kit-lens, it just wasn’t going to happen, and I should have given up and instead looked for more moments when the pro gymnasts were interacting with the kids: capturing high-fives, smiles in conversation, and slaps on the back.  Instead, I filled my card with way too many blurry photos of kids flipping across the floor. 

Oh well. We learn from mistakes, and even though I had to sort through a lot of blurry photos, I got many shots that were in focus and framed well. I’ve only shared a small sample here. The most valuable thing was seeing up close how encouraged these kids were to have their heroes working as their mentors, and passing on what they had learned.

We had twenty minutes before the end, and when I looked down at my screen, I saw that I only had ten shots left on the only card I had brought with me.  I thought a 2,009 photo-capacity would be plenty, but I was wrong.  The very last shot of the evening was of four of the pro gymnasts standing together, and I had to take it on my iPhone.  

Leslie also came the next day and took some very good photos of Leighton smiling with the pro gymnasts, as well as shots of Leighton getting autographs.

Donnell Whittenburg, Eddie Penev, Adrian De Los Angeles, Sam Mikulak, and Kanji Oyama were the workshop instructors. Jordan Gaarenstroom, from the University of Michigan, founder and CEO of Gymnasts First which is the organization that put on this event, also instructed from the floor.

It was an incredible experience, and I’m very grateful to Jordan for letting me have the opportunity.  I had five hours of solid photography practice shooting kids who were having fun and learning to improve their skills and fitness. I hope the shots I took gave something to the parents who couldn’t go down to the floor that night.  

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