By Aaron Viltres and Eric DiCrescenzo
On the outside of the building, it’s all brick, with the windows covered by competition banners. However, once you step in the doors of Free to Fly, young boys and girls are springing all over the place. Jumping from bar to bar. Running up walls and sliding back down. Practicing skills that would help them with the obstacles you would only see on American Ninja Warrior, a competitive television show broadcasted on NBC.
Free to Fly is a gymnastics center located in Lake Ronkonkoma, Long Island. The gym gives classes in tumbling, gymnastics and Ninja Warrior. Joe, the owner of the facility, came up with the idea of Ninja Warrior classes while watching America Ninja Warrior.
The classes have a sprinkle of parkour dashed in the lessons, which Prianti decided to include after the activity took YouTube by storm about nine years ago. This aspect of the class teaches the athletes the proper ways to run, jump and land on and off of different objects.
“My two sons were never really into the team sports,” Kristen Plantamura, a mother of two athletes, said. “They always have energy and I’m just glad their jumping from pole to pole rather than jumping off my couch.”
Teaching the kids how to hone all the energy that flows through them is one of the goals for Free to Fly. Along with teaching them proper stretching techniques and allowing them to stretch out and allow their bodies to make these movements safely.
“It’s a cooler version of gymnastics,” Prianti said. “With less kids participating in team sports, like football and baseball, hopefully more kids are going to look towards doing things like Ninja Warrior.”
This is exemplified in a story by Newsday, where they touched on how the concerns about head trauma have caused the number of football participants drop on Long Island. Since 2015, the number of football players on Long Island has dropped 17.8 percent. This is while the number of people participating in gymnastics has risen by about five percent since 2015.
While watching the classes roll in and out of the facility, and practicing in between, one clear thing became apparent to Prianti. Each class had a common theme of more boys participating in the classes than girls.
“It’s great because to me, gymnastics for boys is a dying sport, but with American Ninja Warrior every boy is like ‘oh my God this is awesome,”Prianti said.
Out of the total of 76 young athletes that are signed up for the Ninja Warrior, including both age groups, 69 of them are boys. In the age range of four to seven years old, 21 of the 22 participants are male; while in the eight to 16 age range, 48 of the 54 participants are male.
“My son went to a birthday party here [Free to Fly] and came home begging me to sign him up,” Kristen Plantamura said. “The activity they have the kids do seem perfect for boys that are around this age.”
In 2013, there were five times as many female gymnastics programs than male programs in the NCAA and in high school there were 90 percent more female gymnasts than male.
“My son started off in regular gymnastics when he was younger, but he fell in love with the Ninja Warrior classes they offer here [Free to Fly]”, John Hacker, the parent of an athlete, said.
Throughout the gymnastic center’s nine-year run, they’ve seen hundreds of kids between the ages of four to sixteen, but one gymnast took it a step further. “We had one of our little ninjas who ended up competing on Kid Ninja Warrior in Miami and ended up making it through the first qualifying round,” Jimmy Jones, a gymnastics instructor, said.
American Ninja Warrior Jr is a branch off of the original American Ninja Warrior but for kids. The show is for contestants between the ages nine and 14. This show started in the fall of 2018 and is still airing new episodes.
Free to Fly hosts monthly in-house Ninja Warrior competitions between athletes with differing levels of experience and talent. The events go from beginner to intermediate to expert, this way the kids get to compete with others on the same skill level as them.
As Free to Fly continues to grow, visions of expansion throughout Long Island are in its future. “We’ve recently expanded our location here, allowing us to bring in newer obstacle courses and rearrange things so no class ever feels the same, but expansion throughout Long Island is something I look forward to,” Prianti said.