From Coddled Kids to World-Class Gymnasts

Mihai Brestyan molds coddled kids into world-class gymnasts.

Mihai Brestyan

Coach in his Burlington gym. (Photo by Matt Kalinowski)

What does an Olympic dream smell like? At Brestyan’s American Gymnastics Club in Burlington, it’s the gamey scent of feet. Here, older athletes take turns launching themselves off the vault, while toddlers learn to somersault nearby. All around them, the walls are covered with banners and plaques calling out the dozens of champions — like 2012 Olympic hopeful Alicia Sacramone — who were trained right here.

Gymnastics coach Mihai Brestyan moved to the U.S. from Israel at the suggestion of the legendary coach Béla Károlyi, who suspected that Boston would be an Olympic gold–digger’s paradise. The region didn’t have any serious gyms, he reasoned, but it did have affluent, ambitious parents — an ideal setup for champion-building. Brestyan opened his first American gym in Ashland in 2000, then ­relocated to Burlington in 2006. This year, his top three gymnasts qualified for the 2012 Olympics, which will be held this month in London — more than any other individual coach.

Gymnastics has the highest injury rate among girls’ sports, but the Romanian-born coach has gained the trust of overvigilant Massachusetts parents. “I’ve seen him dive in front of my daughter, practically taking his own shoulder off to protect her,” says Alicia’s mother, Gail Sacramone. Other parents like the fact that they can stay and watch their daughters (Brestyan trains only females competitively) through a viewing window. Such a thing would be inconceivable in a place like Romania, where the coach is the boss, but Brestyan has learned that here, parents call the shots. “There are so many stories about tough coaches,” he says. “But I have nothing to hide. This is my job. If you like it, stay.”

And stay they do. Paul Van Eyk took his six-year-old daughter, Lindsay, to Brestyan’s after learning that Olympic hopefuls train there. Though six may seem a tender age to be exposed to the rigors of competitive gymnastics, Van Eyk is convinced that that’s how you make a champion. “You have to decide around this time,” he says. “Otherwise, it’s very difficult for them to catch up.”

If any of Brestyan’s Olympic competitors stand atop the medal podium in London, you can bet even more local parents will be wondering whether their daughter has what it takes.