By Léo Azambuja

Garden Island Gymnastics students and coaches are seen here in their gym in Kapahi, with founder, owner and coach Karla Villanueva-Bernal on the top row. Photo by Léo Azambuja

A small gymnastics program on Kaua‘i has the power to make an impact on the lives of children who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to land a college sports scholarship or even dream of becoming an Olympic athlete.

“We teach children from age one-and-a-half all the way to adult classes,” said Karla Villanueva-Bernal, owner and founder of Garden Island Gymnastics. “We’re the only gym that does a professional competitive gymnastics program here (on Kaua‘i).”

Garden Island Gymnastics also offers a recreational program, but it is for their competitive program that they are putting their name on the map. GIG is the only facility on Kaua‘i certified by the United States of America Gymnastics, the national governing body responsible for selecting and training athletes for the Olympic Games and World Championships.

Herself a former gymnast coming from humble beginnings, Karla wants to provide a safe, positive environment for children who want to learn gymnastics while being able to follow their dreams.

“My goal here is, I want them to at least be level 10, which is the highest level, because then that’s when they can start going for college gymnastics,” she said.

The gym is currently set up in a large warehouse in Kapahi, Kaua‘i’s Eastside, furnished with all the equipment used in all four major categories for women’s competition in the Olympic games.

“We have uneven bars, we have our floor apparatus, which is the spring floor, it’s in the Olympic floor,” Karla said. “We have three Olympic size beams, we also have smaller ones. And we have a vault. Our vault is the long runway with the horse. We’re the only one on island that has that vaulting table, but that is what the kids use in competition.”

Garden Island Gymnastics athletes, wearing dark purple, are seen on the podium of a recent competition on O‘ahu. Contributed photo

Karla grew up in a problematic neighborhood in Los Angeles, and her father, a professional boxer from Mexico, made sure she and her siblings practiced sports to stay out of trouble. At seven years old, she joined a gymnastics program. Although, by gymnastic standards, she was already late to the party, she quickly progressed and joined a better gym at a YMCA facility. Within a couple years she was ready for competitive gymnastics.

Karla loved the sport, but at 12 years old, the bullying, body-shaming and negative reinforcement from her coaches broke her down and caused her to quit. She would return to gymnastics in high school, and would soon become the school’s team captain and a coach at YMCA. Since then, she never looked back.

Because of the negative experience from her earlier years in gymnastics, she knew exactly how her style of coaching would be.

“My main thing is, I never want the bullying, the meanness, the coach, all that stuff of breaking down the child to ever happen,” Karla said.

GIG gymnast practicing at the Kapahi gym. Photo by from Léo Azambuja

But it doesn’t mean she or any of the other five coaches at GIG — all of them certified by USAG — take it easy during practices.

“We’re building strong kids, confident kids, healthy kids,” Karla said. “If they ever move off-island, I want them to be able to go to any gym facility, and it’d be the same program.”

Karla believes in the power of words, and if she says something, she said, it is going to happen.

“If me, a poor kid from LA, is able to live here on Kaua‘i and have this as a business and be able to provide this for children, for you guys, I could do anything. That means you guys could do anything. What do you guys want to do in your life?” Karla says she tells her students.

Gymnastics, she said, is one of the most difficult sports, and if the kids can do it, they can do any other sport. But she also tells her students if they are able to push themselves and train hard, they will also be able to push their boundaries in many other aspects of their lives.

Karla opened her business 10 years ago, and it was first called Karla’s Gymnastics. She bought a few things; a bar, a balance beam and a few mats. She would stuff everything in her car and set up the gym at All Saints Gym in Kapa‘a. A couple years later, she moved to 1,700-square-feet warehouse, and that was when she quit her day job at a financial institution.

GIG owner and coach Karla Villanueva-Bernal helps a young student to learn how to do a somersault. Photo by from Léo Azambuja

“I just put my faith that this was something that we needed,” said Karla, adding that was when her students started competing in gymnastics.

About five years ago, she rented a 4,700-square-feet facility in Kapahi to move her gym once again. At this current facility, they were able to add an Olympic-size floor and other equipment. But Karla has bigger plans; she already bought a warehouse in Kapahi that will become the gym’s new address in the future.

“If the permitting goes right, then hopefully we’ll be moving soon to our own facility, because I want to grow more,” she said.

Garden Island Gymnastics holds classes Monday through Saturday, though sometimes they teach private lessons on Sundays. They usually hold week-long camps throughout the year. The camps’ schedule was affected by COVID-19, but now that restrictions have been lifted, the camps should restart.

Visit www.gardenislandgymnastics.com for more information, to check the current classes schedule, upcoming events, or to email Karla.


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