By Virgil Dickson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 2, 2007
While watching her daughter practice a gymnastics routine a decade ago, Grace Ortiz figured maybe she could help.
Ortiz, 50, who had played professional volleyball in her native Bolivia, began volunteering regularly at the gym where her daughter trained to help the young gymnasts with their routines. Before long, Ortiz had immersed herself in the world of gymnastics and learned enough about the sport to become a coach.
Now, as head gymnastics coach at the Prince George's Sports and Learning Complex in Landover, Ortiz has helped to build the three-year-old team into a powerhouse in the state. For her accomplishments, Ortiz was named "Coach of the Year" in a unanimous vote in the summer by the Maryland board for USA Gymnastics, the sport's national governing body.
"I really have fun with this," Ortiz said. "The competitive side of me comes out when I do gymnastics, and I like that."
Patti Delaney, a member of the Maryland board and director of gymnastics at the Prince George's complex, said Ortiz has been key to the success of the 76-member team, ages 5 to 15, which is divided into groups that compete based on skill levels.
For two consecutive years, the predominantly black team, which is rare in the world of gymnastics, took first place at the Maryland gymnastics championships in all three levels the members entered. The team also has placed first or second in more than 15 gymnastics events in the region this year.
"She has shown a consistency for doing good work here and other places," Delaney said of Ortiz. "I knew she was a coach with a heart and passion, and she showed she would be able to take a program and build it from the ground up."
Ortiz, who works during the day as a medical biller handling invoices and related matters for a Laurel company, moved to Maryland after her 1975-82 stint in professional volleyball. Her daughter, now 18, is on the gymnastics team at the University of Pennsylvania. She also has a son, 17. In the living room of the family's Silver Spring home, a shelf displays many sports awards -- about 80, Ortiz said.
Over the past 10 years, she has coached 25 individual state champions and two other teams. She was lured to Prince George's to coach the Sportsplex team when Delaney formed a competitive group from the center's recreational classes in November 2004.
Last year, the team expanded, adding a boys group to the USA Gymnastics competition schedule and the Mason Dixon group, which competes at the local, regional and state levels but is not part of the USA Gymnastics schedule.
David Morant of Crofton, whose 7- and 5-year-old daughters are on the team, said Ortiz insists on regular attendance, as well as a true commitment toward and love for the sport. If a child misses too many practices close to a competition, Ortiz won't let the child compete. Team members practice at least 4 1/2 hours a day.
Morant said he and his wife were thrilled to find a program that would help build their children's discipline and character.
"Coach Ortiz is big on character," Morant said. "You can have all the talent in the world, but you need character."
They also were interested in getting their children into a sport that in this country has attracted more African Americans and other minorities in recent years but still has a long way to go to reflect the diversity of the United States.
"The resources are not in our neighborhoods," he said. "You can always find a basketball court, and that's about it."
Ortiz said her coaching style was inspired by those who taught her. She still remembers being stretched to her physical limits by a coach who made her jog up and down 25 steps with a teammate so she could strengthen her legs and jump higher. Another coach made her play a game with a pulled muscle in her leg.
"I feel like I was successful because of the things I did," Ortiz said.
The girls who work with Ortiz look forward to a tough workout regimen that constantly challenges them and helps them accomplish their goals.
"The stricter the coach is, the better chance you have of winning," said Nia Baker, 11, of Bowie.
She said she hopes her many hours of practice help her reach her ultimate goal.
"I want to go to the Olympics," Nia said.
In a navy blue jacket and matching sweatpants, Ortiz circles the gym and keeps a close eye on the girls to ensure they are perfecting their routines. She knows how they feel when she is watching.
"I do think some of them are nervous when I walk by, but they know what I expect," Ortiz said.
Cynthia Baker, Nia's mother, said her daughter always keeps herself in check around Ortiz.
"If I tell my daughter to do something, she might do it," Baker said. "If Coach Ortiz tells her to do something, she will do it."
But the team's hard work and the members' respect for their coach have paid off, Baker said. The team has earned a reputation for winning -- so much so that other parents notice when the girls walk into a competition.
"They watch us and know what level we are and what the competition will be for their child," Baker said. "They see them and say, 'Those are the girls from Sportsplex.' "
Ortiz said she plans to be around a long time to help her gymnasts reach their full potential. She said she is continually motivated by the mantra her coaches repeated to her when she was about the age of her young charges: Be tough. Don't give up. It's just a step. Move slowly. And take your time.
"There is always something to move toward," Ortiz said.