Photo by Les Stukenberg.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first part of a two-part series on Arizona Dreams Gymnastics Academy in Prescott Valley.
PRESCOTT VALLEY — Ten-year-old gymnast Chiara Andrew possesses one of those rare athletic gifts that you can’t quantify.
Work ethic? Check. Demeanor? Check. Personality? Check. Talent? Check. Toughness? Check.
From a young age, Chiara (pronounced KEE-are-UH) could complete front flips by simply watching and copying others. She could perform splits and painful maneuvers which her peers would have to work hard at to achieve.
“She never tires, she never gets scared — nothing ever hurts,” veteran Arizona Dreams Gymnastics Academy coach Heather Davis recently said of Andrew. “It’s just different than other children when she started right at 4 years old.”
And yet not everything has been a bed of roses for Chiara, a six-year gymnast at Arizona Dreams. She still labors as diligently as anyone in the gym, even if it may not always seem apparent.
Last winter, Chiara overcame a stress fracture in her right arm to become the only Arizona gymnast in the 8- to 10-year-old age group to qualify for both USA Gymnastics’ prestigious National TOPS (Talent Opportunity Program) Testing and the TOPS ‘A’ National Team.
Chiara made the 50-member cut on the ‘A’ Team among a field of thousands of gymnasts from across the U.S. She was one of just three Arizona girls who attended National TOPS Testing.
There’s little wonder why Chiara’s so good. She’s known for begging her mom, Summer Andrew, to work out four and five hours at a time several days a week.
“She will never miss gym,” Summer said. “She’s been putting in 20 hours a week since she was 6 years old. I would have to tell her when it was enough. It can be a thing of pushing too much.”
Davis said Chiara’s work ethic has been a staple in her everyday routine.
“That, for her, was part of why she progressed so quickly – because she just wanted to do more than the average kid at 5 and 6 years old,” Davis added.
Chiara suffered the stress fracture due to overuse the summer after she won the 2014 state beam championship at Level 7 and qualified for Regionals. She was the youngest Level 7 gymnast (age 7) at the regional meet, which includes athletes from Arizona, California, Utah and Nevada.
“She had to stay off of her arm for three months and had lost a lot of the things [skills] that they [USA Gymnastics] test on,” said Summer, who like Davis is a USA Gymnastics-certified coach. “She had to work so hard. She was so determined and just kept going. She didn’t know how it would work out.”
Added coach Davis, “You never saw her feeling sorry for herself — participating in any of the conditioning or whatever it was that she could do. And if there was something that she couldn’t do, then she would immediately go and find conditioning that she could do with her legs.”
However, Chiara, currently a Level 8 gymnast, soon recovered. She now practices an average of 28-30 hours per week at the Arizona Dreams gym, 7175 E. 2nd St. in Prescott Valley. During the summer of 2016, she’ll be aspiring to even loftier heights in her push to become an Elite gymnast.
Chiara is training for Level 9, and her goal is to be a HOPES Elite gymnast, which would lead her on the path toward being a Junior Elite gymnast.
Level 10 is a step below Elite, the highest rung in gymnastics reserved for Olympic athletes.
“I love it. I’m good at it,” Chiara said of gymnastics. “I try to smile [on the tough days].”
In 2014, while she was injured, Chiara learned three new skills required to become a HOPES Elite gymnast, including the front aerial, side aerial and back tuck on the beam, before undergoing therapy.
“It wasn’t that hard – we immediately started focusing on what she could do,” Summer said of her daughter’s recovery process. “When she got stuck in workouts, we checked the list she made and moved easily through the injury.”
Last July in Boston, Chiara achieved a perfect score on the beam at TOPS with Tammy Biggs, the national coach for the U.S. Developmental Team.
Chiara of Chino Valley, who is home schooled, represents one of more than 3,000 girls from across the country who are competing in USA Gymnastics’ TOPS program.
Last October, Chiara participated in National TOPS Testing on famed Olympic coach Bela Karolyi’s ranch at the National Training Center in Huntsville, Texas, as one of the Top 50 girls in the 8-10 age grouping.
She later attended National TOPS camp with Developmental Team coordinator and former Olympic champion Valeri Liukin at the ranch in December and February. She will also attend in September and November.
“It was exciting,” Chiara said. “I want to make the Developmental camps, a step higher. It was a good experience at the developmental camp (at the National Training Center). Valeri and Tammy Biggs, when they work with me, it makes me feel like I’m better.”
Arizona Dreams gymnast Sophie Tomsho, an incoming eighth grader at BASIS Prescott, said she’s impressed with Chiara’s accomplishments.
“She works really hard, and she’s really awesome, and sweet and nice,” Tomsho said. “And she always listens, and she always has a good attitude. She makes a good impression on the team.”
Chiara has won around 100 medals as a gymnast. She’s the third of Summer’s five children with husband Craig, who manages the business side of the gym. Four of their five children are gymnasts. Brynli, 12, is at Level 9; Adalyn, 11, is at Level 7; and Nikell, 7, is at Level 4.
Chiara has stood out because of how fast she’s advanced through the amateur levels. If she can reach the Elite level, she will be in rare company.
MyKayla Skinner of Desert Lights Gymnastics in Chandler is the only Elite gymnast in Arizona, and she’s in her late teens. Skinner is the lone gymnast in Arizona to make the U.S. National Team.
Chiara, who attended her first national camp when she was 7 years old, eventually wants to earn a scholarship to the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, which has a strong college gymnastics program.
Summer and Heather, who grew up gymnasts in Prescott, have been coaching Chiara since she was at Level 2.
The coaches say what makes Chiara special is her ability to go into “beast mode” as a competitor. In other words, “like a light switch, she can turn it off and on.”
“You can see the focus in her eyes,” Summer said. “She can check in and out of beast mode to handle [the moment on the mats]. You can see it in her face and in her eyes.”
Chiara’s strongest event is the beam. She’s affectionately known as the “Beam Queen” because she “already has Level 10 skills,” Summer said.
Coach Davis, 42, a 1991 Prescott High graduate who has known Summer since she was 18, said Chiara is “naturally extremely flexible.” She enjoys doing routines multiple times, which is also “very unusual” for her age.
“We’ve had many people that we’ve worked with — national coaches and Olympic staff — solidify the feelings that we have for Chiara,” coach Davis said. “That she truly is a prodigy gymnast — very, very special. So, honestly, the sky’s the limit. She could easily be an Elite or an Olympian someday. As far as she’s come at 10 years old, the personality that she has to go along with all of that talent? That’s the other part of Chiara that you just can’t build in a gymnast.”
Macy Davis, Heather’s 10-year-old daughter and a Level 6 gymnast at Arizona Dreams, has been best friends with Chiara since age 3. They enjoy playing with one another outside of the gym during their free time to keep the mood light.
“She always tries to push us and help us, and she’s just really funny and silly,” Macy said of Chiara in the gym. “She will try anything, and almost everything she does is basically perfect.”