This year, Gleason’s Gymnastic School is celebrating its 50th anniversary.
It’s a milestone that almost didn’t happen. And no one seems more surprised by the gym’s success than its owner.
Ask Larry Gleason and he’ll tell you he never set out to create a gymnastics empire in the Twin Cities.
But with two locations — one in Maple Grove and one in Eagan — and more than 2,000 students, including many adults, that’s exactly what he’s done.
Gleason came from humble beginnings.
He was raised in a single-parent household in South Minneapolis.
He opened his first gymnastics school — one of the first in the country, according to Gleason — in a small space in Minneapolis with one goal in mind: He wanted to teach. The year was 1966.
Gleason was 25 and had just dropped out of the University of Minnesota where he’d been attending on a full gymnastics scholarship.
“I married young. And after two years of college, I just couldn’t open a book anymore,” he said. “I was somewhat of an idealist. I didn’t fit in with the others. So being young and naive, I quit.”
All he had to fill his little gym was an old trampoline he’d been using since high school.
“I knew I wanted to teach, but other than that, I had no real goals,” he said.
The former high school gymnast and state champion did have one thing going for him: Experience.
Gleason started teaching gymnastics when he was only 15 years old. He continued teaching after high school at the South Minneapolis YMCA, and quickly realized he had a talent for it.
Students liked him. They responded to him. There was only one problem: The money he earned teaching gymnastics wasn’t enough to support his family, so he found a full-time job doing research at the University of Minnesota.
He purchased equipment little by little, most of which he bought second-hand, until he had a full gym — full of equipment and students.
He was off to a pretty good start.
But it would still be nearly 20 years before he’d hire his first employee.
Joni Selden met Gleason 28 years ago, when her young kids were enrolled in his recreational classes.
“Larry and I would talk after class,” she said. “One day he asked me if I wanted a job answering his phone for him. He’d heard at a seminar that you should always have a real person answering your business’ phone calls, so I started working for him.”
As the gym grew, so did Selden’s responsibilities. Today she’s Gleason’s business manager. Selden said she’s stayed on so long because Gleason’s gym has always felt like family to her.
“Larry is one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” she said.“He sees the best in everyone and treats everyone like family. It’s part of his personality and the personality of the gym.”
In 1973, Gleason moved his gym from Minneapolis to Eagan, switching buildings twice until he settled into his current location, a gym he’s called home for the past 15 years.
“We really didn’t make a profit until around 1986, but I was never in it for the money,” he said. “I loved to teach and planned to work hard and live a modest life.”
It was during the 1980s — when his business was doing well, just not well enough — that Gleason decided to give college another shot.
He enrolled again at the University of Minnesota, this time with the intention of becoming a public school teacher.
Lucky for thousands of budding young — and older — gymnasts, Gleason’s second stint in college didn’t last. He’d quit again a year later when his business finally took off.
In 1995, he opened a second location in Maple Grove, and — with the exception of a decrease in students during the 2008 financial crisis — both his locations have been thriving ever since.
Gleason now employs more than 100 teachers, many of whom are former world champion gymnasts.
Focusing on the positive
So, despite all the ups and downs, how has Gleason’s business persevered through all the financial hardships? Gleason says it comes down to one thing — the quality of the coaching.
“I believe in the power of positive reinforcement,” he said. “My sole goal — and it’s what I’ve always taught my employees — has been to give kids a positive influence in their lives. A lot of gyms focus on the kids who are competing, but that was never our focus. We want to teach all students, regardless of their abilities.”
Former national trampoline champion David Kennedy, who coaches trampoline and tumbling, agrees with Gleason’s philosophy. It’s part of the reason he’s been coaching with him for more than 30 years.
“Larry has always been about the kids, and he’s done so much for the sport of gymnastics,” Kennedy said. “He was my coach and mentor. And he’s the reason I’m a coach today.”
The majority of Gleason’s students are enrolled in recreational classes. These classes revolve around Gleason’s belief that gymnastics has benefits that reach far beyond physical fitness.
It’s something Gleason said he’s long suspected to be true.
“Gymnastics, or any exercise that involves focus and thought, has the ability to help kids get stronger not only physically, but academically and mentally,” he said. “We’re just beginning to become aware of all the benefits.”
Gleason — despite having had many students go on to win multiple national and international championships — said gymnastics can be life changing for anyone at any age.
“It’s transformative,” he said. “I’ve seen how it can build up a kid’s confidence. A child who has confidence in the gym is going to approach life with confidence and have a good chance at success. It’s great for kids to have dreams of being on a competitive team and winning competitions, but that’s not what it’s all about.
“Our job is to provide the tools, instruction and equipment to allow kids to go as far as they can go.”
Gleason, who’s been teaching for more than 60 years, no longer coaches on a regular basis, but that doesn’t mean he’s slowing down.
He recently returned from a two-week kite-boarding excursion on Texas’s South Padre Island. It’s one of many adventure-vacations the 75-year-old has been on in recent years.
“I love to teach, but now that I have so many good coaches, I don’t need to be in the gym every day,” he said. “I love to be active.
I’ve been to 25 different countries, so I guess you can say I love to travel and try new things, too.”
Gleason participated in a motorcycle race in Ireland last year.
In November, he plans to go windsurfing in Venezuela. He said he tries to promote the benefits of staying active to his older adult students.
“Being active is natural,” he said. “It’s our sedentary lives that are slowly killing us — it goes against our natural state. Exercise has been proven beyond a doubt to help us live longer and better.”
Starting later in life
So where does an adult begin in the sport? Gleason recommends the trampoline as a good place to start.
“The trampoline is easy to learn, and you don’t have to be particularly strong or flexible to do it,” he said. “It’s also very low impact so it’s perfect for adults who have sensitive joints.”
While Gleason may have cut back on his coaching duties and even his increased vacation goals, he has no plans to retire from gymnastics any time soon.
“I want to keep going because I enjoy it,” he said. “My goal is to continue to refine and upgrade the program,” he said. “We’ve built a great reputation and I want to keep improving and moving forward. I also want to keep working — as long as I’m able to sneak away when I want.”
Tina Mortimer is an essayist and a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in White Bear Lake with her husband and two children. Follow her work at tinamortimer.contently.com.
Take the leap
Gleason’s Gymnastic School offers a variety of classes for adults at its Eagan location at 2015 Silver Bell Road, Suite 180, including Adult Trampoline, taught by former national trampoline champion, David Kennedy;
Beginners are always welcome. For class schedules and pricing, visit gleasons.com or call 651-454-6203.
Watch Olympic gymnasts
Summer: See the some of world’s best gymnasts compete in three disciplines — artistic, trampoline and rhythmic — at the 2016 Summer Olympics, set for Aug. 5–21 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Learn more at rio2016.com/en.
Fall: The 2016 Kellogg’s Tour of Gymnastics Champions will showcase gymnasts from the 2012 and 2016 Olympic Games at 5 p.m. Oct. 9 at the Target Center in Minneapolis. Local gymnasts are expected to join the show. Tickets go on sale June 23. Learn more at kelloggstour.com.