After school program offers flexibility for mind and body

Posted: Wednesday, November 23, 2005


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  Gym teacher Lisa Juliussen demonstrates a move for a student learning a floor routine. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Ashley McCamon flies off the vault while learning gymnastics in a popular after-school program at Soldotna Elementary School last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Just about every physical education teacher has that one sport or activity they love, one that inspired their career path in the first place and one they want to share with their students.

For Lisa Juliussen, the physical education teacher at Soldotna Elementary School, that one sport is gymnastics.

“This is my thing,” Juliussen said after an after-school gymnastics session last week.

Indeed, Juliussen has turned the gym at Soldotna Elementary into gymnastics central for the month of November over the last several years. From 3:30 to 4:15 each afternoon, 20 or so fifth- and sixth-grade students can be found taking turns on the vault, practicing on the balance beam, trying the parallel bars and working on tumbling routines on the large floor exercise mat.

Juliussen said she started the after-school gymnastics program the first year she was hired, in 1999, raiding storage sheds to dig out equipment that had been sitting unused.

She came to Soldotna Elementary with an extensive background in the sport, starting as a child with a private club and then attending Sehome High School in Bellingham, Wash., which boasts one of the top high school gymnastics programs in the country.

There, Juliussen was coached by Nola Ayers. Ayers led Sehome to 22 state titles before retiring in 2000 and remains an inspirational figure for Juliussen.

“She encouraged me many times to teach and carry on the torch,” Juliussen said.

While in high school, Juliussen twice made an international squad and traveled to China, Japan and Australia to compete.

She earned a gymnastics scholarship to the University of Alaska Anchorage, and while she enjoys sharing her passion for the sport with her students, she also has a bit more modest goals for them as well.

“I’m not looking to have the next Mary Lou Retton,” Juliussen said.


Gym teacher Lisa Juliussen demonstrates a move for a student learning a floor routine.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Mostly, Juliussen said, her program is about getting out and doing something active outside of the school day. She sees participants improving their flexibility and gaining a better understanding and awareness of their bodies in motion. Learning new skills can help build confidence and self-esteem, and having a little gymnastic ability is an advantage no matter what sport a student might pursue in the future.

“This is where my talent is. If I can teach kids the fundamentals of gymnastics, that’s something that can be used across the board,” Juliussen said.

And if her gymnastics unit happens to inspire a participant to pursue the sport outside of school, that’s great, too.

Juliussen said the program has progressed over the past few years, thanks to support from Principal Carolyn Cannava and lots of help from her colleagues, including assistant coach Laura Mohorcich.

Equipment that had been borrowed and returned for the program each year has now found a permanent home at Soldotna Elementary as other schools finally are willing to part with things that have been gathering dust for decades.

Juliussen said she is constantly amazed at her student’s accomplishments. Though they have a wide range of abilities, all participants are enthusiastic about giving everything a try.

“They challenge themselves more than I ever thought possible. The stunts and skills they do impress me daily,” Juliussen said. “... It just impresses me how much they try, and how much they accomplish.”

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