Vare Rec gymnast stretches her fortune


The lion serves as the mascot for the athletic teams at Chestnut Hill’s Springside School, where Joy Wilson is a sixth-grader. The animal defers to its partner, the lioness, to chase after food, but Wilson has no qualms about hunting, for accolades, that is. The resident of the 2500 block of Webster Street added to her decorated gymnastics career by winning four medals and a trophy at this month’s Philadelphia Department of Recreation’s All-Around Gymnastics meet.

The 12-year-old competed at the Vare Recreation Center, 2600 Morris Street, her training hub for her entire six-year involvement in the sport. In the advanced level for 12 to 13 year olds, the flexible force claimed gold for her work on the balance beam, floor and uneven bars. A bronze showing on the vault gave her a fourth adornment for her neck, with her overall efforts allowing her to win the all-around title, her third in four years.

“Winning came as kind of a surprise this year because there were so many good girls,” Wilson said.

She topped 14 competitors, including six teammates from the Vare gymnastics team, to give her bright face even more reason to smile.

“She is more dedicated this year,” mother Melissa said of her daughter, who “slumped” last year with a second-place finish in the all-around.

Her dedication sees Wilson attending Vare three times a week. She practices from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, as well as 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Saturdays, although her advanced overachieving streak causes her to extend her stays.

“She’s fond of saying, ‘One more time, one more time,’” Kristin Smerker, the team’s coach for 14 years and the supervisor at Donald Finnegan Playground, 30th and Oakford streets, St., said of one of her longest-tenured pupils. “She’ll be coming here when she is 80 years old.”

Representatives from numerous recreation centers attempted to defeat the pre-teen three weeks ago, but her agility and tenacity thwarted their ambition. The former has become stronger through her playing soccer for the Anderson Monarchs, a female travel team, and by running track for her school, the Philadelphia area’s oldest girls’ institution. The latter has propelled her since she traded ballet slippers for no footwear.

“I’ve come to like gymnastics more as I’ve grown older,” she said, offering an admission that may spell further disappointment for her opponents.

Her increasing affinity does not mean Wilson goes without an occasional bout with anxiety, however.

“The best part about competing is being able to do all of the events, but it’s also the most nerve-wracking,” she said of the nature of her elastic identity.

Adept at adapting, she feels her confidence improves with each repeated maneuver. With such self-belief, it seems certain the only tumbling she will experience will come when she performs handsprings and roundoffs.

“Joy is so dedicated,” Smerker said. “She always come here very focused, and I appreciate that.”

""Wilson does not rely on footage of accomplished gymnasts to strengthen her routine, choosing her tireless attraction to practice as her most informative guide. She confessed only to drawing some inspiration from Shawn Johnson, the compact artistic gymnast who became the U.S. all-around champion in 2007 and ’08, with the latter year also bringing her four Olympic medals, including a gold on the balance beam. Wilson feels she will not try to match or top Johnson’s senior career, as she stated she is leaning towards shunning professional level competition.

“I’m still thinking about that,” she said of pursuing a life among the elite.

“She should be ready for open level soon though,” Smerker said of progressing to more involved elements.

Her advanced level executions impressed the four judges at Vare, one of five locations where she has competed, as she received stellar marks for her 90-second attempts on the beam and the floor and dates with the bars and the vault.

“I was a bit nervous, but I wasn’t going to let my nerves win,” Wilson said.

Through her past involvement in drama, she knows all about pressure, yet she sees each set of eyes not as a critic but as an entity to entertain.

“Can I try a Berani?” she asked Smerker of her desire to perform a front flip coupled with a 180-degree turn.

“Of course!” the resident of Second and Porter streets said.

“Kristin is one of the most dedicated coaches there is,” Melissa Wilson said of Smerker’s influence. “She and Joy make a great pair.”

All three hope to retain that pair for at least one more year, as the City’s ever-unstable budget, according to Smerker and Melissa Wilson, could make the gymnastics program a casualty.

“I definitely want to continue here,” Wilson, whose sporting life should come in handy whenever she learns physics, a discipline within her favorite subject, science, said.

She recently helped classmates to build a robot and cites art as another passion.

“I also like math, although I’m not great at it,” she said.

If she keeps excelling, her addition skills will certainly increase as she, her brothers, mother and father Shawn, the supervisor at Marian Anderson Recreation Center, 740 S. 17th St., will need to make room for even more medals and trophies.

“I enjoy improving,” the young lady said. “I always want to become better.”

Contact Staff Writer Joseph Myers at or ext. 124.