The toddlers at Regal Gymnastics Academy in Essex are in a full-throttle energy burn during a Tuesday morning open-gym hour, scampering over colorful foam blocks, teetering on balance beams and dangling from parallel bars.
In another part of the brightly lit gym, several 4-year-olds "work out" on miniature exercise benches —with foam-rubber barbells — and pint-size treadmills, while others swing on nearby climbing ropes.
"They love it here," says Katie, the group's pony-tailed, twentysomething nanny. "This place is a dream!"
And not just for preschoolers. Regal's new multimillion-dollar athletics and recreational center, which opened in May, boasts top-of-the-line gymnastics equipment and an ambitious new coach determined to send a Vermonter to the Olympics. There's also a preschool, adult workout room, lounge, locker rooms and bistro. The kid party area features a stone castle made from five tons of Vermont-quarried granite and a $1200 hand-carved mahogany throne. Regal eschews paper products for real glassware, china and linen napkins.
The keeper of the castle is Regal's ultrahigh-energy owner and founder, Erika Reeves. The 53-year-old mother of seven — her children range in age from 11 to 35 — says she channels all her energy into the gym, which occupies her seven days a week. In addition to having a Type-A personality, Reeves admits that running Regal is a form of therapy. Reeves' son, Mark, died of cancer in June 1998, just three days before his eighth birthday.
"You have two choices in life," she says. "I could have stayed home and been bitter for the rest of my life, or I can use him to be a positive force that drives me."
There's another reason for Regal's reign: her daughter Laura. The girl was just getting interested in gymnastics eight years ago when the University of Vermont closed its gymnastics facility and turned its collegiate program into a club sport. So Reeves and her husband, Tom, a vice president at IBM in Essex Junction, bought UVM's gymnastics equipment and opened Regal in a rented Winooski warehouse.
When the entire Reeves clan relocated to Connecticut for Tom's job, Laura and her sister, Katherine, received a level of coaching unavailable in Vermont. In 2010, Laura was Connecticut state champion; Katherine ranked second in her level.
How could Reeves get her daughters back to Vermont — without dashing their gymnastic aspirations? By then, Regal had outgrown its space, and Reeves started searching for land to build a new facility. Knowing exactly what she wanted, she sat down with an architect and within an hour they had sketched out her entire plan. It included the stone castle, a play village, a state-of-the-art preschool with science center, the bistro and many other amenities.
"If it was going to be 'Regal,' it had to be really regal," Reeves says, "from the crystal chandeliers and fireplaces in the birthday rooms, to going out and getting the best possible coach."
The result is the new, 10,000-plus square-foot gym in Essex. The five-star energy-rated building has 12 skylights with GPS tracking devices that rotate to capture sunlight. Reeves won't reveal how much the entire facility cost, except to say that she and her husband "pretty much sold everything we own before a bank would even look at us." That included the couple's 8000 square-foot mansion in Connecticut.
The preschool is licensed for 30 kids, but Reeves won't accept more than 24 to "maintain the experience." Every child studies at least one foreign language, be it French, Spanish or Japanese, and all the food is local and organic. Reeves plans to install an indoor video camera so parents can watch their children via the internet using a password-protected access code.
"I believe in my program so much that I have no problem ... having a camera in the corner that lets parents access their children during the day," she says.
On weekends, Regal now hosts as many as 10 two-hour birthday parties, providing parents with a one-price party package that includes "everything but the cake": goodie bags, art projects, organic juices, coffee for the parents, full run of the kid village and, of course, plenty of gymnastics.
"Where else can you have a party in a real stone castle?" Reeves asks rhetorically. The centerpiece of the birthday area is as lavish as it gets. And there's nary a paper napkin or plate in sight. Isn't she worried about kids breaking her dishes?
"Eh, who cares?" she says, with a shrug.
The royal treatment doesn't come cheap: A two-hour party costs $300 for eight kids and $10 for each additional child. In September, Meghan Stockamore of Colchester spent $380 on a Regal birthday party for her 7-year-old daughter, Avery. The mother of two said it was a bit more "programmed" than Avery's previous birthday parties at the former more "free-for-all" Regal gym in Winooski. But she didn't regret the investment.
"The kids seemed to enjoy it," says Stockamore. It's "a great facility, so I'll give them props."
Adults who bring kids to Regal's classes seem to share that sentiment; the gym offers classes for both children and adults, ranging from beginner hip-hop to ballroom dancing. On a recent November morning, Kathy Swigon is seated in Regal's bistro — her granddaughter, Sabena Dymond, 3, of Milton, is gobbling down a bran muffin before her tumble class.
"Oh, it's a wonderful place. Sabena totally enjoys it here," says Swigon, who drives in from Plainfield once a week to bring her granddaughter to the gym. "She wakes up every morning and asks, 'Is this gymnastics day?'"
Swigon isn't the only one driving more than an hour to get to Regal. Of more than 700 students enrolled in Regal's gymnastics and dance classes, some travel from as far away as Rutland, Plattsburgh and Montréal. They pay anywhere from $8 an hour for open gym to $50 for a private lesson. Elite athletes pay $300 a month for 12 to 16 hours of instruction a week. Many classes have waiting lists.
The demand may have something to do with Regal's new head coach, Paul Beach. Four months ago, Reeves won a bidding war with a gym in Chicago to land the 30-year-old trainer who has brought athletes to national championships seven times. The Texas native joins Regal's staff of 45.
Reeves was looking for a coach who shared her vision of cultivating America's next Gabby Douglas or Jordyn Wieber. Though Vermont Olympic athletes typically compete in the winter games, Reeves' goal is for Regal Gym — whose motto is: "We crown champions" — to become a world-class training center for gymnasts aiming for national or international stardom.
Beach is definitely on board. He has pledged to bring a Vermont gymnast to the Olympics within eight years.
"I could have gone anywhere ... but to build a program from the ground up is something I'm embracing," Beach says. "Regal really sets itself apart as being the whole package."
Beach admits that when he first saw the gym and party room, with the real china and glassware, he thought, They're crazy! With a gym full of kids? Now he seems sold on it. "Nobody else would do that. And Erika does a lot when nobody is even here."
In addition to rings, bars and balance beams, Regal also has inground trampolines, rod floors and pits full of foam cubes for practicing flips, tumbles and other aerial maneuvers. That includes half-pipe tricks on snowboards.
The training area is outfitted with a time-delay, instant-replay system, so that gymnasts practicing their routines can watch themselves on a large video monitor immediately after performing a move.
"Kids want to see what they're doing," explains Beach, who can stop, rewind and pause each video, then show the athletes when and where to point their toes or tuck their elbows.
"It's really been a helpful tool. It saves me work because I don't have to constantly tell them what I want. They can just see it."
Carolyn Bronz of Enosburg Falls sees something else on a recent morning at Regal. She's there with two of her three grandchildren for the open-gym hour but wants to talk about how much confidence her older granddaughter — a 9-year-old — has gained in her gymnastics class. "What she's learning here is just amazing to me," says Bronz.
Reeve is still tinkering with Marky's Kid Village, a play space named for her son. In a separate room, for an additional fee, kids can play in a child-scale town that features a cinema, Vermont country store, Sweets 'n' Treats room, firehouse, kitchen and one-room schoolhouse.
On the one vacant wall, Reeves envisions erecting either a Ferris wheel or climbing wall. "I like to go over the top with everything I do," she adds, with a smile. "I want to leave this world knowing I did something really well."
In other words, a crowning achievement.