The goal: have fun

Photograph at San Francisco Gymnastics at 1405 Fillmore by Kathi O'Leary

Photograph at San Francisco Gymnastics by Kathi O’Leary

By Julia Irwin

AT SAN FRANCISCO GYMNASTICS at 1405 Fillmore, toddlers scramble over large geometric foam blocks, twirl colorful streamers and jump across a long trampoline track — all while waving to iPhone camera-wielding mothers. In recent months, the studio has made the move from its former location in the Presidio, re-establishing itself in the long-vacant ground floor of the Fillmore Center.

For owner Eric Van der Meer, the relocation has been well worth the effort: Its new home is easier to access both by car and public transportation and is also better maintained than the Presidio facility, which had no heat or running water.

And for Van der Meer, the atmosphere of Fillmore’s jazz district is another bonus.

“I feel very at home here,” he says. “I grew up in Holland, which is very diverse, and the middle of San Francisco reminds me of that. There are so many different nationalities, different cultures, and I think Fillmore represents that quite a bit, actually.”

Photograph at San Francisco Gymnastics by Kathi O'Leary

Photograph at San Francisco Gymnastics by Kathi O’Leary

Van der Meer, who has a degree in physical education, also owns Redwood Empire Gymnastics in Petaluma, which fields a competitive team. While the Fillmore location focuses on traditional Olympic events including floor and tumbling exercises, bars, beam, rings and vault, the local gym is strictly recreational.

Van der Meer says the absence of competition allows the local gym to teach far more than athletic skills.

“What we’re trying to implement in class is not only a good forward roll or handstand or cartwheel, but also waiting for your turn. Being polite to your teachers. No cutting in line. Being respectful of your friends,” he says. “Teaching gymnastics is a great tool to teach kids wider life skills that they can use outside as well.”

Van der Meer has two children, ages 9 and 11, neither of whom does gymnastics.

“When your daddy owns the candy store, at certain points you don’t eat candy anymore,” he laughs.
San Francisco Gymnastics caters to kids as young as 1 year old up through middle school. At the youngest levels, the goal is simply to have fun.

“The really young ones we call the Littlebugs class, which is a 45-minute unstructured class where they just play,” Van der Meer says. “We have ladders out, we have tunnels, they can just swing, they can monkey around for 45 minutes. Later we expose them to the idea that there’s a teacher in the house — the structured classes start as early as 3 — with the same kind of playful setup, where we introduce them to the basics of gymnastics and structure.”

He stresses a key component of his business: a careful selection of staff.

“I’m extremely picky about who I work with on the floor,” he says. “One of my requirements is that I make sure you love kids. You don’t have to know everything about gymnastics yet, because I can teach you that. I cannot teach you how to love kids.”

The commitment to passionate teaching is not lost on parents — among them Carey Wintroub, whose younger daughter Dylan has been attending classes for three months.

“We’ve done Acrosports,” Wintroub says, referring to another children’s gymnastics center in the city. “They have some different things, but I think the teachers are great here. They’re doing a lot for the kids’ gross motor skills, and the kids are really having fun.”

Dylan, who is 4, agreed, adding that of all the things San Francisco Gymnastics has to offer, her favorite is the high balance beam. Her reasoning: “It’s higher than the low balance beam.”