Growth Spurt

Sutton gym's most popular workout is for tots

In New York, the need to look good keeps health clubs busy almost around the clock. Yet the beautiful people who work out at Sutton Gymnastics and Fitness Center on weekday mornings don't seem terribly intent on thinner thighs and washboard abs. And why should they? In their social circle, chubby cheeks and bulging bellies are far more fashionable.

They are preschoolers, of course: charter members of the Teletubby generation. And while they romp about the big, bright space overlooking Cooper Square— climbing, swinging, tumbling, and bouncing on mats as colorful as Tinky Winky, Dipsy, La La, and Po— the gym's owners can't help but enjoy their own good fortune.

Founder Bill Hladik says he had competitive gymnasts in mind when he opened shop 24 years ago, up on East 54th Street near Sutton Place. Three moves later, the gym still fields several squads of promising athletes. But it's tots like Isabel, my two-year-old daughter, who keep the place humming. Children between the ages of 18 months and six years now make up two-thirds of the clientele. With tuition pegged at $25 a class, they generate nearly $1 million in revenue each year. Little kids maybe, but big spenders.

"When we started, 80 percent of our students were adults," Hladik says. "Now 10 percent are adults." So is he in it for the money or love of the sport? Both, probably, given that he's the son of an import-export man and a show dancer. They fled Czechoslovakia together on foot in 1948, when he was four, eventually settling in Astoria. Though he excelled as a gymnast, he never quite made it onto a Wheaties box. In pursuing a second career, he could have done worse than giving cooped-up kids a place to burn a few calories.

Hladik and his business partners— entrepreneur Joanne Sotres (a former equestrian with whom he shares a Murray Hill co-op) and attorney Marion Aronson— aren't getting rich. The cost of maintaining and staffing the city's largest dedicated gymnastics facility chews up much of the revenues. And instead of maximizing profits, the gym offers a free summer program for children who live in public housing and is starting to reach out to teenage parents.

Sutton Gym began courting the stroller set a dozen years ago, initially as a recruiting tool for its teams. Instead it tapped into a throng of parents who were more keen on the recreational and developmental benefits of gymnastics than on raising the next Dominique Moceanu, the young Olympic gold medalist. In a city renowned for its tight living quarters and abundant outdoor hazards, the gym's 17,000 square feet of padded space— nearly four times the size of a professional basketball court— are a piece of heaven for kids and parents alike.

Laura Tiozzo says she and Cecilia, her three-year-old daughter, have tried Gymboree, music and dance classes, preschool, and more. But for 18 months they've kept coming back to Sutton Gym for its structured curriculum and engaging instructors. "Cecilia likes those other activities, but she asks all the time to come here," says Tiozzo, who grew up in Milan and worked as a fashion editor at Elle before becoming a full-time mom. "I can see how in normal life she's gotten more skillful. She climbs on things and falls without hurting herself. She's more adventurous, more in control of the situation."

Recently Isabel and I dropped in for a few sessions ourselves. Hladik steered us to a BabyGymnastics class, in which toddlers aged 18 months to three years are accompanied by their parents or nannies. An instructor led us in some stretching and then guided us to various exercise stations. At the first stop, an obstacle course, Isabel and five peers climbed steps, did forward rolls down a ramp, and swung from a trapeze. Later they took turns bouncing on a trampoline and landing flat on their butts. Sometimes they practiced forward rolls on a low balance beam, or tried bear crawls across the parallel bars, or hopped down a long springy track.

Many of the BabyGym instructors have degrees in early-childhood education along with gymnastic experience. The ones I observed proved adept at motivating young children. For example, instead of telling Cecilia to bend at the waist to do a forward roll, one instructor suggested she look for her belly button. Cute, and it works.

Hladik says the sequential curriculum was designed to develop motor skills, balance, and hand-eye coordination as well as self-esteem and the ability to follow a class. If Isabel missed some of that, it's my fault for not committing to the full semester. On several occasions, after waking from a nap, the first words from Isabel's mouth have been "Go to the gym? Go to the gym!"

Try telling her no.

Sutton Gymnastics and Fitness Center, 20 Cooper Square, 533-9390

 
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