TAMPA — Ten years ago, Marina Roberts began her first gymnastics class at the YMCA. Really, it was just another activity, something to fit between swimming lessons and dance.
It has become something more — a lot more.
Roberts, 13, an eighth-grader at Martinez Middle School, has risen to Level Eight status in gymnastics, the beginning of advanced competition. Now it’s serious stuff, perhaps an avenue to a college scholarship and even the chance to entertain distant dreams (reminders of the 2020 Olympic Games are in her locker).
“I didn’t know if I’d get to this point at this time, but sometimes I surprise myself,’’ Roberts said. “I just know I want to be the best I can be.’’
Roberts will have her best on display during this week’s YMCA National Gymnastics Championships, which are hosted by the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA. More than 1,800 gymnasts will participate in the five-day event, which includes an Olympic-style Opening Ceremony with a pirate theme (“Treasures Discovered’’) on Wednesday afternoon at Raymond James Stadium.
Gabrielle Garcia, gymnastics director and coach at Tampa’s Bob Sierra YMCA, said Roberts has unlimited potential. In fact, Garcia said her YMCA facility hasn’t seen a gymnast with Roberts’ skill in at least a decade.
“She has progressed immensely,’’ Garcia said. “She’s rare in that people would look at her and say, ‘She’s too tall (5-foot-7).’ That holds a lot of people back, but it doesn’t hold her back. She adjusts well. She flies everywhere.’’
Sometimes to the detriment of her mother’s nerves.
“The skill sets get harder and harder,’’ said Pam Cladakis, Roberts’ mom. “Level Eight is the first time as a parent I have to hide my eyes. Sometimes, I can’t even watch. It’s scary, but absolutely Marina’s strength and conditioning through the years allows her to flip and turn and fly through the air the way she does.
“The balance beam is always scary for any parent. When they’re just starting out, you’re saying to yourself, ‘Just stay on the balance beam and don’t fall, please.’ And here at Level Eight, you’re saying the same thing. I’m scared sometimes. Marina is always fearless and very confident.’’
Especially in her best event, the floor exercise.
Years of dance training have allowed Roberts to excel in that element.
“She puts on a show,’’ Garcia said. “She has style in everything she does. She has a lot of ability, not a lot of fear and she’s still so young.
“I think she has so much ahead of her. It’s another year before she goes to high school, and that’s usually where you’re going to lose them, either to cheerleading or boys. But I think she’s in it to keep getting better. She definitely could do this in college. I think that possibility alone shows you how someone can progress if they want it badly enough.’’
Roberts said she didn’t imagine such things in her early gymnastics career. She just liked it because it was fun.
“When I first started, I didn’t really know what I was doing,’’ Roberts said. “I was just flipping myself around. Then I looked at the older girls or the Olympics and wanted to be like them. So I was always flipping around my house when I got home.
“It’s such a big part of my life. But I really love it. And it’s great to have this event in Tampa. We’re all excited about it.’’
Garcia said benefits already have been realized. Approximately 5,800 visitors are expected in town, bringing along an estimated economic impact of $4.5 million. Also, revenue from the event will help to finance $100,000 worth of gymnastics facilities and equipment improvements at the Bob Sierra YMCA.
“We’re getting out of our tiny building and getting into a new building,’’ Garcia said. “We’ll be able to do so much more there. I think hosting an event like this will obviously help grow the sport and get more people interested.’’
And maybe, like the Marina Roberts of a decade ago, there are many other little girls who are about to be exposed to a world of new possibilities.