Equipment changes are game-changer for gymnasts and manufacturers

Parkettes National Gymnastics Training Center in Allentown is an Olympic powerhouse. Robin Netwall is a former gymnast who’s been an elite-level coach here for the last 40 years.

“We had Jodi Yocum in ’76. We had Hope Spivey in ’88. We had Kim Kelly in ’92,” said Netwall. “Then we had Kristen Maloney in 2000 and now Elizabeth in 2012.”

That’s Elizabeth Price — in London as an alternate on the U.S. women’s team.

Netwell says each new generation she coaches improves on the last because equipment improves. Floors are spring-ier. Mats are more supportive. Balance beams used to be just hard, wooden beams. Now they’re smooth, spring-loaded fiberglass.

“It’s very beautiful. But it’s scary. It amazes me daily what they do, from what I did 40 years ago into what they’re doing now,” Netwall said.

Thirteen-year-old Ashley Szafranski flips and spins on the uneven bars — another thing that used to be wood and is now fiberglass. Between each turn, though, she partakes in a ritual that’s as old as gymnastics: chalking her hands.

“Well I put water on and then I put chalk all over the water so it’s like perfect and them I know I’m ready,” Ashley said, explaining her method.

Chalk a constant commodity

“There’s some old-school things about it that just don’t change,” said Bob Mancino of Mancino Manufacturing in North Philadelphia. He sells Parkettes its chalk, which he orders a year in advance from Taiwan.

“When you buy chalk you have to buy it by the container load,” said Mancino. “It holds about $50,000 worth of chalk. That’s a lot of chalk.”

Mancino also makes cutting-edge gym mats, and distributes all the kinds of modern equipment you’d find in a gym like Parkettes. He custom-builds training equipment for Olympic athletes, too — like when he got a call a few weeks ago from the coach of Jonathan Horton, a Texas-based gymnast on the U.S. men’s team.

“They requested some special pads so when he’s doing his moves on parallel bars, when they land, they don’t injure their arms as much,” Mancino said.

Pit fluffer figures in future

Mancino makes it all in his 5,000-square-foot factory just off Roosevelt Boulevard.

There’s foam and vinyl everywhere. A dozen workers hand-stitch the two together in a variety of patterns and shapes. One woman is working on something that looks a little different.

It’s a put fluffer, says Mancino.

Yes, a pit fluffer — the future of gym equipment, he explains.

“In a gym, they have a hole in the ground with foam cubes in it. I’m sure you’ve seen them,” he says. “In gymnastics they use them and the kids fly into the pit and the foam gets compacted. And instead of being this loose. fluffy thing they get firm.”

To fluff a pit was a very ugly job.

No longer.

The pit fluffer is like an inflatable raft that sits, deflated, underneath the pit cubes. When a coach thinks a pit needs a fluff, he simply presses a button that inflates it. It expands and breaks up the compressed foam.

But the pit fluffer is an advanced, expensive piece of equitpment. Mancino says he’ll see an uptick in all of his equipment offerings this summer — even the humble chalk.

It happens every Olympic year, said Mancino.

“Because gymnastics gets a lot of air time on television, we will typically see a spike in business,” he says. “If our girls and guys do really well, it will be even busier.”

Well, if it’s good for business, fair to say Mancino is rooting for team U.S.A.

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