Heartland Academy of Gymnastics and Cheer owners Richard and Tawnita Augustine, Hays, have been coaching gymnastics for years.

The couple previously coached collegiate gymnastics at Fort Hays State University from 1981 to 1990 and opened the academy after FHSU dropped its collegiate program.

“I was a high school and college gymnast, and he was a football player but later learned to coach gymnastics, and we’ve been doing it together since college,” Tawnita Augustine said.

Since 2006, Heartland Academy has been hosting a gymnastics tournament in Hays, according to Augustine. The tournament took place Saturday at Hays Middle School, with this year’s theme being “Spring Break Dance Party.”

“Most teams that host do the same theme every year, and we change it every year to keep it fun and exciting for the kids,” Augustine said.

While athletes are waiting for award recipients to be determined, they have the opportunity to join one another in the middle of the gymnasium to dance.

“This has always been consistent with our meets,” Augustine said. “We have dance parties.”

Sixteen teams with gymnasts ranging in age from 5 to 21 competed in the all-day tournament, which consisted of vault, bars, beam and floor events. Levels were based on ability and age.

“I think it’s important to highlight the talents of our gymnasts and give them an opportunity to perform for more local people,” Augustine said.

Most meets Heartland Academy participates in are at least an hour away, so Augustine said the annual tournament allows for more friends, family and teachers to check out the hard work the girls have been putting in.

Jessica Clingan, Hays, was volunteering at the tournament. Her daughter, Elizabeth, 11, competed.

“Gymnastics helps teach her how to work really hard, succeed at something and handle disappointment,” Clingan said. “I tell my husband all the time that I don’t send her to gymnastics for gymnastics; it’s all the life lessons she learns while at the gym nine hours a week.”

Brynn Rebel, 6, and Ashtyn Washburn, 6, both Heartland Academy level-2 competitors, said they enjoy the vault and bar events best.

“You just have to practice a lot so you do good at the meets,” Rebel said.

Nine-year-old Hailey Volyard, a level-2 competitor with the Colby Tumbleweed Tumblers, said she enjoys that gymnastics is such hard work.

“You should always try to get your goal, which is first place,” she said. “I think I’m going to do really good today.”

Tumbleweed Tumblers coach Heath Churchwell said kick starting competitors’ fitness habits at such a young age is important.

“I guess I didn’t realize how rewarding this job would be until I understood you’re literally shaping the fitness of young kids,” he said. “The earlier you get them started in gymnastics, or any sort of athletics, the better.”

Augustine said there are two aspects to any gymnastics program — the recreational side and the competitive side.

“Competition isn’t for everyone, but these kids like to go out and perform,” she said. “The benefits of gymnastics are immense — strength, flexibility, coordination, and learning direction and life lessons.”