The James Jones Gymnastics Academy is a USA Gymnastics (USAG) member facility where young boys aged 5-11 can learn the sport of gymnastics and have the ability to compete throughout the season.
Academy founder James Jones is an attorney who has been coaching boy’s gymnastics since 2019. He was introduced to the sport as a child and has harbored a love for it into adulthood.
“There were different programs around our city that were for, I guess what you would call the inner-city youth or the kids who couldn’t afford it, (and) they were normally short in duration,” Jones said.
In Jones’ elementary school, there was a two-week program teaching children flips that resulted in a performance at a basketball game. His gym teacher tried to start a gymnastics class, but the school’s insurance couldn’t cover it, so the kids couldn’t learn the skills in school.
Jones’ assistant principal even placed him in a gymnastics club across town, but since he couldn’t get there on his own as a child, Jones had to quit. In 2019, Jones was presented with the opportunity to be a resource to young boys trying to learn gymnastics in underserved communities. He went a different direction to avoid traffic and stumbled upon a gymnastics center he had never noticed before. Jones reached out to the coaches and asked if he could help out with the program. The center was recreational and Jones eventually realized that he wanted to coach a more intense, competitive program.
“I noticed that a lot of the kids were very talented and that they were the age for competitive gymnastics,” Jones said. “The parents let me know that no one had ever told them what competitive gymnastics was or even how to get into the sport.”
Jones said the parents thought that when the kids are maybe in their late teens or 20s, they will then start competing, because of what they saw on TV.
“When you see gymnastics on TV, those gymnasts are already professionals,” Jones said.
Within six months, Jones decided to open his own competitive gym.
Jones now serves as the head coach for boys, most of whom have been with him since the beginning. Most of the boys he coached in the recreational class followed him when he opened the academy.
“There aren’t that many competitive gymnastics gyms for (kids) in south metro Atlanta simply because a lot of the other gyms that are in Georgia are funded by their counties or by their cities,” Jones said. “I think it’s very important to acknowledge what the small gyms, many of them Black-owned, in the metro Atlanta area are doing, because it really is a labor of love.” There’s also a scholarship program to make the gymnastics program more affordable for the boys and their families.
At Jones’ gym, there are four teams determined by age and skill. The team a child is on determines how long and how often they practice, as well as the skills they work on to prepare for the competitive season.
“In November, we have our season opener, which is the Judges Cup,” Jones said. “And after that, every other weekend, there’s normally a competition for Georgia gymnastics.”
Last year was the gym’s first competitive season. They were the underdogs, coming from a recreational gym and competing against large gyms that have been operating for decades.
They didn’t have equipment at first, and there were several kid-sized equipment pieces Jones had to buy out-of-pocket just to get started. “We didn’t have any full-sized competition equipment,” Jones said. “So it really was a learning experience on how to do the best you can with what you have.”
Over the summer, the gym received a new competition rulebook. Jones decided to have his teams compete at the level they were at currently for their second season instead of trying to keep up with other teams.
“(At) the first competition, the season opener, the boys came in first place, which was a huge shock,” Jones said. “I mean, that was our goal. But, to actually have it happen was wonderful. And it was the same competition that we went to last year, where we came in last.”
Over the past two seasons, Jones has seen a lot of improvement in his boys’ lives. A lot of the boys are homeschooled, so gymnastics gives them an opportunity to interact with children their age. Some have even learned to read thanks to the written assignments and the activities written on the work wall.
“Just seeing their growth as athletes and individuals has been amazing,” Jones said. “I think that the gym has also helped them to see themselves as people in the world and to think about their futures more.”
In the future, Jones hopes to expand his gym to allow for more elite training.
“The elite-level training boys are trying to make the regional elite team for USA Gymnastics, which is known as the Future Stars,” Jones said. “And this is the team that feeds into the national team where the Olympic team is chosen from, so we will need to grow and have that space in order to practice and just to get ready.”
Jones also wants to continue coaching to teach their local communities about boys’ gymnastics and that it can be a career choice for children if they start young. He hopes that there will be more visibility for Black boys and men in the field in the future.
“There has never been an all-Black competitive boys’ gymnastics team,” Jones said. “And just to be out there, and to represent a community and to say we are possibly the first to ever form a gym and compete as an all-Black team, I think it’s wonderful.”