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Geriatric Gymnastics 8

Debra Bassin: Courage and Grit Personified
Debby Bassin, owner/operator of Flipper’s Gymnastics in Ramsey, NJ

This is the second part in my profile of Debby Bassin, who is a dear friend of mine. We sat down in January 2022 to talk about her journey so far. My previous post, Geriatric Gymnastics 7, introduces my connection to Debby and her philosophy that you don’t have to compete to enjoy gymnastics. Geriatric Gymnastics 8 discusses the spark that started the Flipper’s flame and what led Debby to take the leap into business ownership.

Part 2: In the Beginning…

Unlike many great gymnasts, Debby didn’t start training until junior high school, where she made the varsity gymnastics team by virtue of her strength and ability to learn. She spent her early childhood dancing from the age of two. Unfortunately, dance had fallen out of favor for her at 11 when her ballet teacher gave her the impression that a short girl with broad shoulders and large calves was not the “dancer type” (Not surprising, since it was the 1980’s, but shame on that teacher nonetheless).

In eighth grade, the high school gymnastics coach spotted her and a few friends and in a serendipitous scouting attempt, invited them to try out for the gymnastics team. She easily completed the fitness testing, particularly the strength requirements. Instead of being shunned, he embraced her strong body as perfect for the sport, and she stumbled into a new passion where she excelled quickly. With no actual skills or experience in gymnastics, she was invited to join the varsity team.

“Everything I learned in those five years,
I learned from the coach and the girls on the team.” 

I was so glad she said this during our interview, because it seems to be a running theme that spirals in my mind. When I started jumping on a trampoline at age 36, I was a dancer and dance teacher, but I had no acrobatic skills whatsoever, other than maybe a wayward cartwheel. At Joe’s Gym, which we both discovered when we were in our thirties, I learned a lot from the coaching staff. However, what has driven me even more through the years were the lasting lessons I’d learned from the women in the class – both from observing their work and heeding the sage advice they’d randomly offer as we trained. There was always a set of evaluative eyes on me, even if they weren’t the coach’s, ready to correct mistakes and infuse better training techniques.

I have always loved that part of Geriatric Gymnastics; learning is somewhat communal. The coach was always “in charge,” but the veterans were unofficial deputies who made sure the newbies were paying attention to the myriad instructions thrown at them. The women relied on each other’s counsel just as much as the coaching staff. Observations and critiques were welcome, sought after even. Competition was the furthest thing from their minds.

Discovering this underground adult community (read: cult) in the gymnastics world that is not solely focused on competition was a revelation. It was this positive, communal coaching that has informed my desire to pay it forward and help new adults who, like me, are either discovering gymnastics for the first time, or who are coming back to it after many years of skills lying dormant.

Once Debby graduated high school, she had an on-again, off-again relationship with gymnastics. As young adult, she sought out opportunities to keep training. She attended college at the University of Maryland. While she wasn’t quite good enough to make the team, she was allowed to train during open gym sessions for the three years she was there. Since she was not actually on the team, she received no formal coaching or supervision, so she was on her own to maintain her conditioning and skills. After a gap year, she transferred to Kean College, where she joined the dance team (since there was no gymnastics), graduating in 1997 with a Bachelor of Science in Business Management, with a focus on international business. 

After college, Debby eventually moved into the city and found gymnastics classes at Chelsea Piers. I found my next amazing coach – Link Blake. This launched her back into her formal training, where she took as many classes as she could, sometimes three times a week. She followed her coach to NYC Elite in SoHo. When you find a coach that you connect with, you do what you can to stay with them. At one point, Elite needed qualified instructors to cover classes (a challenge that Debby is now very familiar with), and Link recommended Debby to fill the gap. This was her first real teaching experience, and it introduced her to a whole new realm of gymnastics training: coaching kids.

Debby met her husband Barry when they worked at Cambridge Technology Partners in Manhattan. She worked in human resources, he was a tech consultant. They married in 2001 and after 9/11, they decided to leave Manhattan after losing a lot of friends and loved ones in the disaster. Relocating to northern New Jersey, they started growing their family. Debby was able to continue training for a few months into her pregnancy before her doctor put the kibosh on flipping.

Once her kids, Josh and Audra, were born, Debby decided it was time to end her three-year hiatus from flipping and started looking for a local gym. As luck would have it, her sister Gail called her one day in 2006. She had taken her little ones to Joe’s Gym to see if they had any interest in gymnastics. They didn’t, but she did some reconnaissance for her little sister and discovered that the gym had an adult program and encouraged Debby to give them a call. She did, and an important connection was made, one that would help to shape her future as a Geriatric Gymnast and an eventual business owner. She resumed taking classes in the mornings and occasionally in the evening when she could get away, and she was back in the saddle again.

Coincidentally, Debby discovered Joe’s Gym just before I did. I had brought my eldest daughter for classes and I sat with the other parents, marveling at the activity, watching kids tumble and throw themselves head over heels off of high towers of mats onto softer, squishier landing mats. I felt a burning desire to run onto the sprung floor, climb on the trampoline and start jumping around. Everyone looked so happy while working really hard. It was disciplined, yet not in an overbearing way. It gave a safe space for people to play, try new things, fail, and try again. There were no barking instructors, the kids seemed fairly under control, and some great learning was happening. I wanted to be a part of it too.

Eventually, I inquired about adult classes. Overjoyed that they even existed, I started my flipping journey on Sunday mornings, so I never knew that Debby also trained there until the summer, when my teaching year was over and I was finally able to avail myself of the weekday morning adult classes. I think it was there that Debby and I reconnected, as I watched her throwing round-off, back handspring, back tucks with ease. I felt both like a stranger in a strange land and like I could get used to this with the support of the women like Debby who welcomed me with open arms. In addition, seeing Debby with her baby carrier next to the tumble track with her infant daughter sleeping peacefully, I knew that I was not the only crazy mom who wanted to jump on the trampoline.

Over the next 7-8 years, Debby enjoyed the gift of being a stay-at-home mom. She loved raising her babies, participating directly in their growth, and taking gymnastics classes whenever she was able to. But there was something missing; she wanted to reactivate that part of her brain that was involved in business management. She worked for a year at Joe’s Gym helping with organizational and administrative tasks, but that didn’t last long, given the rather chaotic way he conducted his business model, which directly contrasted with her hyper-organized style.

I am a person of organization; when I got married, each of my bridesmaids had their own spreadsheet. I love lists and I love structure and he had none of that.

Being exposed to that, as well as having brought her kids to another local gym and seeing they way they conducted their business, she thought she could do this, and she could do it better. The gears started turning. It was time to tap into her business degree, use her brain, and come up with a business plan. The seeds of Flipper’s Gymnastics were planted. In December 2014, she had completed her business plan and set her sights on opening her own gym.

Stay tuned for Part 3: The Bumpy Road to Orchard Street.

If you are in the Ramsey area and would like to learn more about Debby’s gym, visit the Flipper’s Gymnastics website.

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