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PELHAM — With a tremendous amount of support and effort from a team of hardworking parents, coaches and school administrators, a dream has finally become a reality for Pelham High School gymnasts.

This year for the first time, Pelham High School athletes will have the opportunity to represent their school at gymnastics meets across the state.

Two years ago Bonnie I’Anson and her daughter Chelsea, now 15, decided that Pelham students should have the opportunity to compete in gymnastics. Chelsea developed a love for the sport when she was 9 and has been competing ever since.

“The benefits that gymnastic programs offer are incredible,” said Bonnie I’Anson. “The girls who participate gain self-confidence, self-discipline and determination to overcome their fears.”

In the past, Chelsea and other gymnasts in Pelham have sought training through private organizations run by USA Gymnastics (USAG), the sport’s national governing body, because there were simply no other options.

“There are no gymnastics programs for young children in the area. The only programs out there are in other high schools and at USAG, which is all ages,” said Bonnie I’Anson. “The private programs can be very costly.”

Chelsea volunteers for the Kids in Disability sports program every year at Mill City Gymnastics in Lowell, where she met and befriended one of the coaches, Amanda Iwanicki, 21.

While working together, Chelsea expressed a desire to compete for her own school. Iwanicki said she was excited at the prospect of starting the program because of her own fond gymnast memories during her years on the Tewksbury High School team.

“Some of the best years I had in gymnastics were my times competing on Tewksbury High’s team and I’m just hoping to give these girls the same experience,” said Iwanicki.

Iwanicki, a gymnast for 17 years, coaches at the Mill City Gymnastics Center and is a full-time elementary-education student at Fitchburg State College.

She volunteered to coach the Pelham team for free two days a week once Chelsea and her mother did the legwork and got the program off the ground.

Bonnie I’Anson knew Iwanicki’s offer was a tremendous opportunity and jumped at the chance to present the idea to Pelham High principal Dorothy Mohr and athletic director Tim Powers. “Both were not only receptive to the idea but encouraging,” said I’Anson.

Powers set out to schedule meets for the newly formed team. “Because of the caliber and experience of the girls on the team, it was easy to get our team into the meets,” said Bonnie I’Anson.

Fifteen girls signed up before the first practice, which is unheard of according to Iwanicki, who said starter teams generally only have about five girls. Out of those 15, most have been involved with gymnastics for years and have a strong background with competing through the USAG programs.

“I think this program is a great new avenue for student-athletes seeking another option for an extracurricular activity,” said Powers. “It’s nice to see that there is that much interest and as long as the interest is there, this program will grow and develop as we go.”

The program is entirely self-funded at this point. Iwanicki volunteers time to coach and the participants raise money to pay for gym time, warmups and leotards through fundraising events.

Eileen Murphy, owner of Mill City Gymnastics, and her daughter Cara Murphy have also been very supportive. Both volunteer time to assist whenever needed.

Bonnie I’Anson said she hopes their efforts will allow generations to come to reap the benefits of the gymnastics program. “I realize that there isn’t money to spare for this program right now, but I am just hoping that next year there will be money for a coach’s salary at least so we can keep it going.”

In the meantime, the girls are busy practicing two times a week at Mill City Gymnastics and preparing for their first competition at Salem High School on Dec. 18 at 7 p.m.

“Six of our girls will compete; two can compete in every event and the rest of the team will compete in two to three events on a rotation,” said Bonnie I’Anson.

Team members are hoping to accumulate enough individual points during their five scheduled meets to qualify for the state competition at the end of the season.

“I really hope that the athletic director will see the huge amounts of excitement and interest in this program and realize this should be a mainstay,” said Iwanicki.

Have a story idea? Contact Heidi Smith at 978-970-4653 or e-mail at hsmith@thevalleydispatch.com.