UM gymnastic club provides entertainment and a healthy message -- Gazette.Net







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This story was corrected on Apr. 3, 2014. An explanation of the correction is at the bottom of the story.

Ingrid Sobieski, a senior at the University of Maryland, College Park, said she used to be afraid of heights. Now she routinely performs choreographed dance moves on an 18-foot ladder in front of hundreds of people.

Sobieski, 22, of Woodbine is one of around 65 members of UMD’s oldest campus club, Gymkana, which is a performance gymnastic troupe and outreach program of the UMD School of Public Health.

The group has performed on the television show “America’s Got Talent,” the Cherry Blossom Parade in Washington, D.C., and the Miss Maryland Pageant, and will host a show on April 11 and 12 at the UMD Comcast Center, said Gymkana vice president Erin Pearson, 21, of Annapolis.

Pearson, like Sobieski and many other Gymkana members, joined the 68-year-old troupe with no prior gymnastics experience.

“I was looking for a group of people that were physically active and had a big impact on the people around them, ” said Pearson, a senior Kinesiology major. “It was actually really intimidating because I came in not knowing anyone, but the first time I was here I had an incredible experience because everyone was so welcoming and nice and they’re willing to teach you anything you need to learn.”

Pearson and Sobieski said they are both part of a “ladder act” in which two 18-foot ladders are held upright by male Gymkana members and three female members climb each ladder to perform. Other Gymkana acts include tumbling, trampoline, parallel bars, a human pyramid and partner balancing, Pearson said.

The club holds practices five times a week for two or three hours and that members are required to practice seven hours each week.

In addition to performing acrobatic stunts and aerial flips, Gymkana members take a pledge not to smoke, drink or do drugs while on the team and to encourage healthy living in the community, said coach Joshua Montfort. The tradition began in the 1970s when the dean of what is now the School of Public Health asked the group to emphasize sobriety and healthy choices, he said. The troupe promotes the pledge during performances at area schools and during their Gymkana summer camp for children, Montfort said.

“I think it’s something that sets us apart,” said Montfort, who has been coaching the team for 20 years. “We don’t sit there and preach to them, but we have intros to each of our acts so we talk about healthy choices, healthy living and being above the influence.”

Sobieski said she joined the team as a freshman, before she could legally drink, so the pledge is not hard for her to keep. She said the rush she gets from performing with Gymkana is worth more than a night out at a bar.

“I got over my fear [of heights] and now I’m happiest when I’m not on the ground,” she said. “It’s the exhilaration of conquering your fears. No drug could ever give me that feeling.”

Joshua Montfort’s name was incorrectly listed.