Two Estero Gymnasts Embody Grit and Grace

 

By Cheryl Mandell

 

Gymnasts Julia Glasser and Kallie Ackley of Gymnastics World pose for pictures at Gymnastics World on May 16, 2024 in Fort Myers, Florida. (Photo by Jim Luzzi)

Gymnasts Julia Glasser and Kallie Ackley of Gymnastics World join forces.

Focus. Perseverance. Sacrifice. These aren’t often words that come to mind about a typical teenager, but there is nothing typical about Kallie Ackley and Julia Glasser, two young women from Estero who are reaching for the stars in the very competitive world of gymnastics.

Gymnastics is one of the most eagerly anticipated sports of the upcoming Summer Olympics in Paris, and it’s no surprise, considering the amount of skill and precision that goes into a single routine. Kallie is an incoming freshman at Estero High School, and Julia begins her junior year this August. They are not headed to the 2024 Olympics, but they are national competitors. Their incredible skill and determination to succeed make them ones to watch right here in Estero.

 

Cream of the crop

In 2023, there were about 4.57 million gymnasts in the U.S., according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association’s) 2023 Gymnastics Single Sports Report; 28 percent of those gymnasts live in the Southeast. Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee comprise Region 8.

Last May, both Kallie and Julia competed with the regional team in the 2024 Gymnastics Women’s Development Program Level 9 Eastern Championships (Nationals) in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Julia and her parents at Nationals in Myrtle Beach_ SC May 2024

Julia and her parents at Nationals in Myrtle Beach, SC May 2024

It takes years of mental and physical determination to become a Level 9 gymnast, let alone rise through the ranks of state and regional competitions to qualify for Nationals. Only the top seven gymnasts from each of the eight U.S. regions make it to Nationals. In other words, the best of the best.

Two of those seven gymnasts came from our own community.

Julia placed third in floor, 12th all-around in bars, and 16th all-around – all superb accomplishments. Combined with the fact that Julia is in the academically challenging Cambridge program in school and somehow finds time to participate in other activities like the golf team, Future Educators of America and Spirit Club, makes her feats even more impressive.

Kallie is a quiet, unassuming girl who knows her abilities and believes in herself, an uncommon combination of traits for a recent 8th grade graduate on the honor roll. She also possesses perspective beyond her years.

“Nationals was fun,” she said. “It wasn’t my best meet, but it was a good opportunity to learn and see what it was like.”

What does it take to become top-level gymnasts? The training is non-stop. While most sports have seasons, gymnastics requires year-round dedication. There aren’t any competitions in the summer, but the girls still train 18 hours every week.

Kim Ackley, Kallie’s mother and a coach at Gymnastic World in Fort Myers, where Kallie trains, commends her daughter and the small group of committed gymnasts that pushes through the levels.

“The higher the level, the more girls tend to fall off just because of the commitment and the amount of skills that are needed,” said Ackley. “A lot of the girls start getting fears. Also, high school kids don’t want to devote 20 hours of their life to the gym.”

Julia’s mom, Stephanie, can attest to this fact. “In 2015, Julia started with 11 gymnasts on the Level 3 team. Julia is the only one left of that group now at Level 10,” she said.

Level 10 is the highest level an amateur gymnast can reach before NCAA status. Once a gymnast has mastered all 10 levels, they can move into the Elite level, where athletes can compete in professional competitions or train for the Olympics.

As popular as gymnastics is in the Olympics, many public schools do not offer gymnastics programs, so students must look outside of school for options. This also means that many outstanding athletes do not get the recognition they deserve at school and may lose opportunities for recruitment and scholarships. In Florida, there is only one NCAA Division 1 gymnastics program for women, and that is at the University of Florida. For serious gymnasts like Julia and Kallie, this means looking at collegiate programs out of state.

Jeff Thompson, the girls’ bars and vault coach, has over 30 years as an NCAA Gymnastics coach.

“These two young ladies are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever had,” he said. “I think if they continue their progress, they both have bright futures as collegiate gymnasts.”

 

The Road to Success is a Family Affair

5 year old Kallie at a showcase at Gymnastic World in Fort Myers

5-year-old Kallie at a showcase at Gymnastic World in Fort Myers

Both the Ackleys and the Glassers will tell you that gymnastics is a family sport – everyone is involved. In addition to providing emotional and financial support, families often travel for competitions, requiring many weekends away.

“Gymnastics starts out recreational and fun,” said Kallie’s father, David Ackley. “But it’s a long road, and it is a family commitment, both mental and physical.”

Kim Ackley grew up in Lee County and trained at Gymnastic World when she was younger, so for her, Kallie’s talent and love of the sport has come full circle. After signing Kallie up for a class at age 5, Kim and the other coaches realized Kallie had an innate talent, and she was promptly invited to pre-team at age 6.

Nearly a decade later, with the support of her parents and coaches, Kallie is the driving force behind her own success.

“Kallie wants to do this, wants to go to the gym,” David said. “She asks me to do those things, not me asking her. Where she’s at, especially at her age, it’s really pretty amazing.”

“We try to be that unwavering support system, because gymnastics is a very tough sport mentally and physically and these girls are always striving for perfection,” said Kim. “They know when their skills or routines are not where they need to be, and they don’t need their parents to coach them. They need us to be their No. 1 fans, to be a soft landing for them.”

Dave Ackley owns a cyber-security business headquartered in Estero and coaches his son’s football team, while Kim devotes much of her time to coaching gymnastics. Their son Tanner is almost 16, and Kallie is a year behind him. The Ackleys are a close-knit family that loves spending time outdoors camping, traveling and riding in their side-by-sides on their three-acre property in upstate Florida.

The entire Glasser family is sports-oriented, too. Oldest child Catherine, also a gymnast, just finished her first year at Florida Atlantic University while Julia’s younger sister, Lillian, recently retired from gymnastics with an impressive record and was one of seven in the nation representing the state of Florida at the 2024 USA Gymnastics Region 8 Xcel Regional Championships. Lillian is now pursuing the exciting equestrian sport of barrel racing. The youngest sibling, Audrey, age 12, was also into gymnastics but has shifted her focus to lacrosse, with her father coaching the team.

John Glasser used to coach hockey, too. “I thought hockey was expensive for parents, but gymnastics is way up there.”

Stephanie Glasser started a Little Sister/Big Sister program at Gymnastic World in an effort to support the often shy and unsure 5-to-7-year-olds who have just joined the competitive team. An older team member is paired with a young girl to offer friendship and instill confidence. Stephanie arranges team-building events, such as bowling at HeadPinz. Naturally, Julia has two “little sisters” in this program.

The long, cold Michigan winters prompted Stephanie to sign Julia up for gymnastics when she was just 2 years old. Like Kallie, Julia was quickly pulled into more accelerated programs because of her skill. At age 5, she joined pre-team, training for programs and events.

Before the family moved from Michigan to Florida when Julia was 7, Stephanie began researching gymnastic facilities — even before looking at houses.

 

Grit, Grace and Growth

3-year old Julia in gymnastics class in Michigan

3-year old Julia in gymnastics class in Michigan

 

While the physical and mental challenges are real, so are the benefits.

“These young ladies are truly amazing,” said Jodi Graber, the girls’ beam and vault coach. “They come into the gym every day with a ‘go get ‘em’ attitude. Their work ethic, drive and determination are undeniable. Getting to Nationals in this sport is the ultimate goal, and to get there is an achievement many never experience. I am beyond proud of them.”

Head Coach Katie Jerabek spoke highly of the girls’ work ethic. She knows what it takes to stay at peak performance. Jerabek is an accomplished gymnast as well as a former aerialist, dancer and elephant trick rider with Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

“Julia has a dynamic presence with beautiful lines. She is always willing to try one more time to improve,” Jerabek said.

“Kallie is a very powerful gymnast who is extremely focused and has a tremendous work ethic,” she said.

In addition to watching their girls grow into well-rounded individuals, the parents of both athletes will tell you that the highs of watching their daughters compete beat the lows of any disappointment or injury.

The beauty of watching their children fall in love with a sport and thrive while learning each new skill and leveling up brings pride. That outweighs the ups and downs of practice and struggles to help their daughters balance their lives. These parents enjoy accompanying their girls on gymnastics adventures, gaining friends through team families, and sharing in the joy of the gymnasts’ hard-earned successes.

Gymnast Kallie Ackley of Gymnastics World poses for a picture with her Mom Kim at Gymnastics World

Gymnast Kallie Ackley of Gymnastics World poses for a picture with her Mom Kim at Gymnastics World

When asked to give advice for aspiring gymnasts, both Kallie and Julia had the same thing to say: there are going to be sacrifices and bad days, but you can’t give up. You still need to have fun and realize why you started in the first place.

For the girls, forming lifelong bonds with teammates makes the wins sweeter and the losses easier to bear.

“It’s like having a second family,” Julia said. “You’re with the girls on your team every day, all of the time. You all have the same understanding on the bad days, and you’re lifting each other up. It’s the biggest sister family ever.”

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