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Lunch with Mimi: For Tracy Salvino Longenecker and the staff at Centre Elite Gymnastics, the goal is for youths to graduate better than when they started – athletically and beyond

on January 29, 2020 10:31 AM

A competitive gymnast who earned a full scholarship with the Penn State women’s gymnastics team, Tracy Salvino Longenecker opened Centre Elite Gymnastics in 2011. Now located at 177 Champion Drive in State College, Centre Elite Gymnastics has 32 active coaches and instructors who work with 160 competitive athletes and more than 300 recreational athletes.

Longenecker began teaching preschool gymnastics in high school. After graduating from Penn State with a bachelor’s degree in advertising in 1993, she worked in sales for a Fortune 200 company for 12 years. Later, she worked in marketing and had the opportunity to work in all aspects of business operations from hiring, payroll, and accounting to budget creation, vendor management, and strategic planning.

Combining her passion for gymnastics with her business insights, she hopes to continue to build a business that transforms young people’s lives. In addition to physical exercise, gymnastics not only incorporates flexibility, coordination, and balance, it teaches teamwork and dedication.

Tracy and her husband, Chad, have three daughters (two are competitive gymnasts) and a son, who is on the PSU track team.

       Town&Gown founder Mimi Barash Coppersmith sat down with Longenecker at Mike’s Wood Grill & Bar to discuss Centre Elite Gymnastics’ expansion to a new space, how gymnastics impacted her life as a child, and what continues to inspire her now as a mother and a coach.

Mimi: Welcome Tracy. I've had you in my mind ever since I've seen you involved in some of the things that are happening at your end of town. Tell us a little bit about it.

Tracy: Centre Elite Gymnastics started in 2011. We are starting our ninth season of competition. And we just moved into a new facility; we moved from the west end of town to near the airport. That's been a big change for us. So, it's been exciting and a little bit of a challenge.

Mimi: Has it impacted positively or negatively?

Tracy: Both. I think people are resistant to driving to the airport area. But from a perspective of having new space, more room, higher ceilings, better equipment, viewing space for parents, and spreading my staff out so they have workspaces, it has been wonderful.

Mimi: It was a giant step to take. What made you do it?

Tracy: Well, the facility that we were in on Old Gatesburg Road was a great place to start the business. [But] it had low ceilings and we ran out of space for parents to be able to watch their kids. So, we started looking about six years ago to find a new space in the price range, with the high enough ceilings. We were able to get into the Nittany Valley Sports Centre, which is great.

Mimi: There'll be more activity out there, is that right?

Tracy: There is more activity out there. There are a lot of families. They seem to come in chunks. It would be nice to see a little more of an even flow, but that'll happen.

Mimi: Did you always have the entrepreneurial spirit?

Tracy: I think so.

Mimi: What do you think gave it to you?

Tracy: Here’s how Centre Elite Gymnastics came to be: I graduated from Penn State with a degree in advertising. I worked in corporate America for a while. I worked in marketing for a while. And always through all of that I coached gymnastics at night. And I always wanted it to become my full-time job, but financially or because of life stages, it just didn't work.

And then I sat down in 2010 and started writing a business plan, saying I have to do this either now or never. I wanted to take my knowledge from corporate America, marketing, and coaching, and put them all together. I was able to, through connections from my mom, meet people to help me in the banking industry. I met a great lawyer to help me. I met real estate people to help me find space. It all just came together, and in August of 2011 Centre Elite Gymnastics opened.

Mimi: And you've been doing things that help the community as well.

Tracy: We’ve done a bunch of different things to help the community. In our early days, we did some 5Ks to benefit some local people. We did some spaghetti dinners to benefit some local people. We've done Toys for Tots for a number of years now and we take the kids in and teach them how to wrap.

Since we've had this move, we have had to get ourselves back together. And so, this winter, we're supporting Centre Safe with donations. We did a food drive for the State College Food Bank for the month of November and for December, we did a food drive for PAWS.

Mimi: Your marketing experience has taught you that when you help others, they help others, and everybody will benefit.

Tracy: Especially in a small town.

Mimi: I'm not sure that small businesses like yours get the credit they deserve for that attitude. But good for you. Because that also makes your job more enjoyable when you know you're not only helping the people that are paying for help, but through your activity, you're making it possible for other people to gain some benefit. And that's something for which you should be acclaimed.

Tracy: Thank you. We're also working with children and it's good to teach them to give back to the community. To teach them that there's more to life than yourself I think is good.

Mimi: You're a relatively young woman with a high degree of confidence and self-esteem. What a wonderful combination. What do you credit it to?

Tracy: I have great parents. I grew up in a great sport. I had great coaches. My parents are amazing people. They're very geared toward helping others. My mom has volunteered in almost every role there is in this town. My dad is the center of the stage in every room he walks into. He has great stories and it's hard to live up to those things. But they were a great influence and continue to be a great influence, and they also supported me financially.

Mimi: They bragged about you to me, and I thought that this is a woman I have to know.

Tracy: Well, thank you and I thank them. It's been interesting to follow my mom through all of this because she knows everybody.

Mimi: You fit the description of a successful woman who certainly has had a juggling act. While all this was going on, you’re a mother, an entrepreneur, someone who cares about the community. Who were the other influences in your life?

Tracy: A great influence in my life was my coach Ted Jackson. I was a gymnast from the time I was 3 until I was in college. And although I didn't appreciate it at the time, as I have grown older and coached children myself, I realized his ways as a coach really helped influence how I coach and how I deal with people. He was very consistent and calm. There wasn't a lot of yelling. He respected me as an athlete, demanded my respect of him as a coach, and he made sure that it was my desire to do gymnastics, not my parents’, not his; it was mine. So, he was a great influence.

Some of the other people that coached me are still active in gymnastics and I see them once in a while. Carole Ide is still active in the judging community and I get to see her once in a while. She was also a very positive influence in my athletic development. As I grow as a coach, I think back to all the things that I got to experience that helped me tremendously, and I want to give to my athletes what I received as an athlete. I had a great experience.

Mimi: What do you see 10 years from now?

Tracy: Wow. I see having grandchildren. I see a business that's going to be at the end of its second decade.

Mimi: How many people do you employ?

Tracy: We have 32 people on staff; 10 are full-time, 20-some are part-time. The part-time people move around; some are a couple hours a week, some are many hours a week, so that number fluctuates.

Mimi: How do you recruit people?

Tracy: I got really lucky when I opened the gym because gymnastics has a big foothold in central Pennsylvania with Woodward Gymnastics Camp and Penn State gymnastics – and so I was able to find great coaches from the start.

Recruiting new people to work is not always easy. We have to find the person that not only wants to do the job, but that fits in with the people you already have. You have to be a team player. So, developing the culture and the quality of people has been something that we've worked the hardest at. I'm lucky; we have a lot of really good gymnastics coaches in that mix.

Mimi: What are some long-term goals?

Tracy: I would like this business to grow into the building we're in. I would like it to become the central Pennsylvania go-to place for high-quality gymnastics instruction. I would like Centre Elite Gymnastics to be known for its high-quality instruction and that kids leave it better than when they came in, not just in gymnastics, but in life; good people that are kind to people.

If you want to work with children, you want them to come out at the end better than they came in.

Mimi: And this may be a business where the boss has to be there, too.

Tracy: Definitely. I want to coach. I love coaching. The highlight of my day is coaching.

Mimi: What's been your greatest experience in your professional life?

Tracy: There was a gymnast on our team whose family was struggling to support her doing gymnastics and suggested she stop. She loved doing gymnastics and being at CEG. She was a great team member and a good role model for the younger kids. And she didn't want to quit. So she and I worked out an agreement where she was able to help coach and I helped her with tuition for a year. When she graduated, she wrote me a note and said how much she appreciated having a family at the gym.

It's extremely fulfilling when kids leave our program and go to college and find the thing that they want to do. Some of them have done gymnastics, others have not, but they've all been successful in their journeys after us.

Mimi: What happens is, you're not just teaching them gymnastics. You're teaching them about team effort and that when you’re good to others, life is good to you.

Tracy: And the importance of how you interact with other people and the importance of having a goal and having a structure in your day.

Mimi: So, they have to be able to define themselves positively.

Tracy: Yes. We try to help them with that. It's been nice to see the kids graduate, feel as though they've been successful, and either continuing with their sporting careers in college or being happy with what they've done and moving on to something else.

I had a parent tell me – we were in a meeting about her child and she said to me, “This is a pretty special place, a place my child has learned to fail in front of others and still wants to come back and do it again. Just imagine how supported she feels that she can fail in front of her friends and they still love her, and she still wants to go back and try again.”

I thought that was a perfect way to frame it. We all fail every day at something; we learn, then we build on that. This is what we do in any sport, but mine is gymnastics. We're giving kids the room to fail and be supported, to keep trying and learning. I think it's special when you have a group of friends that support you in that.

Mimi: It's a great message and I wish you continued good luck. You’re a unique woman, fulfilling your dream.

Tracy: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

 

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