Top gymnasts coming to town
Long before Kerri Strug and her teammates graced Wheaties boxes for winning gold at the 1996 Summer Olympics, Tim Erwin conceived a plan to lure top gymnasts to an invitational in Houston with promises of cash prizes for superlative performances.
As Erwin watched runner Alberto Salazar dominate the New York City Marathon in the early 1980s, he noticed how organizers of the race offered runners bonuses of up to $100,000 for breaking the world record. Erwin, the director of this weekend's Houston National Invitational, decided to apply the same concept to gymnastics.
"We get these guys that work their butts off, they train seven days a week and our top gymnasts don't get anything," said Erwin, who has coached more than two dozen junior national team members during a career that has spanned more than three decades.
"USA Gymnastics started giving athletes money when they won the national championships, so I decided I'd like to put an invitational together where I'm giving back to them."
Now in its 17th year, the invitational has grown from a moderately sized junior competition to one of the biggest international meets in the world. Elite gymnasts from the United States, China, Ukraine, Germany, Colombia and a number of other nations will compete at this weekend's invitational on March 4-6 at the George R. Brown Convention Center. The event, hosted by the Houston Gymnastics Center at the Jewish Community Center of Houston, will award close to $50,000 in cash prizes – the most of any privately-run gymnastics invitational nationwide, according to Erwin.
In the first several years of the invitational, the meet drew several hundred juniors, who competed mostly in front of sparse crowds that consisted of friends and family members. Through the years, Erwin has drawn upon an extensive network of coaches and others in the sport to attract some of the top gymnasts in the world. Approximately 2,700 athletes will compete at this weekend's event in a field that tentatively includes U.S. National Team members Danell Leyva, C.J. Maestas, Andrew Elkind and Chris Brooks.
"We're going to have some very high-level competition," said Erwin, who also serves as the director of the Houston Gymnastics Center at the JCC.
"The big transformation was about 10 years ago on the men's side, at least. I was able to get the elite men out much earlier than the elite women."
Brooks, who attended Cypress Creek High School, competed in the event as recently as six years ago before becoming an All-American at Oklahoma University. He has developed into one of the top gymnasts in the world in the high bar and finished fourth in the all-around at the 2010 Visa U.S. National Championships.
It was an impressive performance considering Brooks competed with severe pain in both ankles. In December, he underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left ankle and had cartilage damage repaired in his right ankle. He will be competing for the first time since the operations.
"If I took any wrong landing at all I was done. My ankle would swell up to the size of a baseball," said Brooks, 24, who now lives in Norman, Okla. and serves as a volunteer assistant coach with the OU Men's Gymnastics team. "I'm not trying to go out there and prove to anybody that I'm back, because I'm not 100 percent."
The invitational will also be held in conjunction with the USA Gymnastics Winter Classic, a qualifier for the United States Trampoline & Tumbling Association's (USTA) National Championship. More than 90 elite trampoline and tumbling athletes are expected to compete, according to Erwin.
Portion of the proceeds will go to the USA Gymnastics Scholarship Fund and the JCC Development Fund, that help support the travel and equipment budgets for youth gymnastics at the center.
"It's a huge give-back thing," Erwin said. "It helps us for kids that want to take gymnastics that are on scholarship here."