Scenes from AN INTERVIEW
A Life Well Coached: Aimee Boorman
By Gus Mollasis
Perhaps because she’s from the Midwest, when you meet Aimee Boorman, you immediately feel at ease. Her warm, balanced way coupled with a beaming smile and a sincere gaze make talking to her easy. In her gymnast’s coaching bag that helped her protégé, Simone Biles, reach Olympic gold medal heights, there are no secrets, only virtues. Virtues packed tightly to share with anyone who comes into her world. Honesty. Integrity. The ethic of hard work. Respect and trustworthiness. Added up, these virtues didn’t only help her to coach an Olympic champion to gold, they’ve helped every athlete she’s coached. In her often frantic and busy life, she’s sought the balance needed in her athletes as they’ve performed on the floor, in the air and on the beam. When her dream of becoming an elite gymnast faded at an early age, she didn’t quit. She instead jumped feet first into coaching gymnastics, and that’s what she’s done ever since. Today, she’s the Executive Director of Women’s Gymnastics at EVO Athletics, where she’s once again sharing her knowledge, wisdom and talent with a new generation of athletes. It’s a move that’s delivered results that even an Eastern European judge would give her a perfect score on. As I sat down in her office, just steps away from a gym full of athletes working hard on techniques, I couldn’t help notice how much fun they were all having. I also couldn’t wait to be coached a bit by Aimee Boorman as we took a look at some scenes from an interview of her life.
Where were you born?
Congratulations on the Cubs.
108 years between championships.
That’s all it took. (Laughs) Being from Chicago, you’re a fan if you can say you’re a fan, then you are a fan. You have been tested and through all the ups and downs.
What was your favorite way to spend a day as a child?
I was a latchkey kid. Single mom. We lived close by the park district where I started doing gymnastics. Then when I switched to private club gymnastics, I would go home and get ready for gym. I’d eat a snack, get on the public transportation and go to gym. My mom would pick me up after and that’s pretty much what I did every day, because my life was gymnastics.
Was it your dream to be a gymnast and win Olympic gold?
Yes. To be in the Olympics, absolutely. I think that any little girl who’s on a competitive team, that’s just what they dream of.
Who was that gymnast you watched on TV that you most admired?
It was 1984 and that’s probably when I was at the peak of my focus. Sure, Mary Lou Retton influenced me, but my absolute favorite gymnasts were Julianne McNamara and Tracee Talavera. Interestingly now, I looked up to them when I didn’t know them and they were stars in my eyes. Now we’re friends who chat occasionally on Facebook. (Laughs) It has come full circle. Bart Conner too. I consider Bart a friend.
When did you realize you would not become the gymnast you dreamed of becoming?
I was probably around 12 years old and hit my growth spurt. Everything became difficult. But I still loved gymnastics. It wasn’t that I was going to stop gymnastics; I just knew that I wasn’t going to be an Olympian.
How did you channel that into something else and eventually get into coaching?
I started coaching when I was 13. I was doing it to pay my tuition and I was [an] assistant coach. I started there and just kept going. There has only been one full year in my life since I was six in which I wasn’t involved in gymnastics and that was between age 12 and 13. At 13, I went back to the gym and I have been involved in it ever since. I went away and missed it so much. When I went to college I was a communications major, like every freshman, and I was coaching a little bit, but not much. I realized how much I missed gymnastics and thought I would just coach. That’s because I quit being a gymnast when I was 18.
How soon do you know when someone has that ‘special something’ it takes to be a champion?
You can see a spark in a kid, but you never really know how far they’re going to go, because it’s all a matter or circumstances. You have to have the passion, the body type, the drive, the financial assets, and the ability to stay healthy. You have a lot of things that [need to] go right. You have to get with the right facility and with the right people. When people ask me when I knew Simone (Biles) was going to be great, or when I knew that Simone would make the Olympics, I answer “When she made the Olympics.” That was it. Now, we knew going into that Olympic year that if she was healthy, she was going to be on the team, but that’s a huge thing. This sport is incredibly dangerous and you never know when something happens and you’re done.
So if you see one of these gifted athletes walk in your door today and she has everything going for her, you just don’t know if it’s going to happen because you don’t know what’s inside them?
Yes; you don’t know what’s inside them in terms of passion and drive. In the case of Simone it was fun. She came in during a field trip. You walked in and you see all these 6-year olds on a field trip. She got a note sent home with her that said, “Hey, do you want to come in and try some classes?” It was my mother who actually saw her first. My mother said, “Aimee, you have to come and see this. You have to see this kid.” I told her I was busy coaching the team. I blew off my mom about Simone. (Laughs) The moral of the story is listen to your mother. Luckily, Simone did end up signing up for classes. When I saw her in a class, she caught my eye. She was just this little spunky thing. I will see kids like that here (EVO Athletics), but there is just such a balance of getting all of that and knowing from the professional perspective of how hard to push, when to push and when to pull back. To me, they need to be kids, first and foremost. Yes, Simone became a superstar, but she was just an average teen like any teen I have here, until she made the decision to take it to the next level. She was 14 years old when she made that decision. She worked out 20 hours a week. Her parents were involved, but not over-involved. They dropped her off at the gym, picked her up and paid her tuition.
What is the most gratifying part of your coaching profession?
I think the most gratifying part is the relationships that are made. I love when a kid stays in a sport and I get to watch them grow and develop. It’s not about the gymnastics. It’s being a part of raising them and being able to mentor them. Having that relationship. There are a lot of kids who have quit gymnastics that I still have a friendship with. They are parents now. They will send me baby pictures of their children. And that’s nice. My goal is always, no matter how good you are, that when you leave the sport, you leave loving gymnastics. You don’t leave it because you hate it. You leave it because you’re done. Everybody gets done with things in their lives. Everybody does that at some point. You stop playing with dolls at some point and at some point you stop gymnastics. But it’s still in your heart and you still love it. Then they enroll their children into gymnastics. It evolves. And it’s something that just fills my heart.
What is the most difficult part of being a coach?
As far as the hardest part, I don’t think people realize this, but it is what the coaches have to sacrifice. It’s probably like this in most youth sports. Our jobs don’t start until the kids are out of school, so that means that my husband knows I won’t be home until after 9 p.m. every night, because I’m spending time with other people’s children. As you get up in the higher levels, you’re working more hours and traveling. I missed three of my youngest son’s birthdays in a row because I was in another country coaching gymnastics. There is a lot of sacrifice. Luckily, my husband knew what he signed up for, and for my children, it was kind of what their life has always been. Now that I made the switch to Sarasota, I’m making sure that my family is my priority. Now they say things like, “Oh, you’re here this weekend, Mom?” Before, I would go away for weeks at a time. The longest trip was to the Olympics for six weeks. I was very lucky that my mom lived with us for most of that time. Grandma was there helping to raise the kids and that was fantastic.
Describe the 2016 Olympic team, and how gifted Simone Biles was and what made her so good.
As far as Simone goes, she has star quality. She did really ugly gymnastics when she was little, but she was powerful. She was this teeny little thing. People would see how high she would tumble, how dynamic she was, and that she had this smile from ear to ear because she was doing what she loved. It was just fun for her. I knew that she always had star quality. Her floor music would come on and even judges who were judging other events would stop and wait to start judging the next routine until Simone was done because they wanted to watch her. She had “it.” She absolutely had an “it” factor. The light went off in my head, but we had to keep it fun.
Describe the many hats as a coach you wear with your athletes.
Simone has said that I was like a second mom to her, but I prefer to be known as the cooler aunt. (Laughs) Because that’s the more fun role and I don’t actually have to parent you. But I did have to parent her in the gym, and I do that with the kids that I coach now. If you were to ask her about me, she would say that I knew when to push her and when to step back. There were times when I had to put my foot down and there were times when I would say, “Let’s go play.”
What is the most important word that embodies that relationship?
I think it is trust. We were together for 12 years. It was a long relationship. She was kind of daughter to me. There was trust and respect, which went both ways. She respected me as her coach, and I respected her as an athlete who was making a choice to do this. Her parents and I told her that she didn’t have to do this, that she was driving the bus.
As you have stated many times, you consider what you do to be just a job. Please explain.
It’s ‘just gymnastics’ because we’re not curing cancer here. We’re teaching kids how to do cartwheels and move their bodies, but more importantly, we’re teaching them life skills. That’s the biggest part of our job. We’re teaching them about respect, honor, sportsmanship, self-discipline, time management. All the tools that are going to help them as adults. But the gymnastics is going to fade in them, just like playing with dolls. Even Simone, who is superstar Olympian, is going to get to the point when gymnastics is what she did in her past, and she’ll have to look at and focus on what is coming up in the future. She’s only going to be a gymnast for so long. There is a point where you are no longer going to be a professional athlete.
How thin is that line between getting a bronze medal and a gold medal?
I don’t know. I haven’t seen a bronze medal in a long time. (Laughs) Actually one on the beam from Simone.
What was it like when she fell and miraculously caught herself?
Yeah, and she still got a bronze medal. It was pretty much a miracle what she did there. She was well trained and knew how to fight. When you talk about what’s the difference between a gold medal and a bronze, I look at being a part of team USA. It is such a dominant program, and Simone is the most dominant athlete in the world for four years straight. The hardest part for us was not winning. It was the pressure and expectations that was put on her to win. It wasn’t about the gymnastics, but the high expectations from everyone else. When she was starting to get overwhelmed with the pressure and expectations, I would tell her, “You’re not responsible for other people’s expectations. You’re only responsible for your expectations.”
What is the most important thing that you hope your athletes take away from their time with you?
That they learn how to communicate with whoever they are working with, whether it’s a co-worker, boss or employees. The line of communication is so important because everybody has something to say. Usually with these kids, I need to know if they’re not feeling well, or if they are sick or injured, or even sad, because it’s going to affect how I deal with them. When you feel safe with someone, you can talk with them in a very respectful way that they trust. They should be able to carry that through life and in their relationships, moving forward.
What do you tell the athlete or their parents when they tell you they want to become an Olympic champion, or that they want their child to compete for gold in the Olympics?
People call me and say, “Tell me about your elite program.” And I tell them, “I don’t run an elite program.” I teach gymnastics and I have the knowledge to teach your child whatever they are capable of learning. And then everything else has to fall in place as well. I give them tools for success, but success isn’t handed to you. You have to work at it.
How did you find your way to Sarasota?
Jason Collins, who is one of my partners, actually came to work with me in Houston, but for personal reasons had to come back to Sarasota. Right around the Olympics, my husband and I were looking for something different. We had been in Houston for 21 years. Simone and I had come full circle on what we had started. It was the completion of that and we were ready for something new in our lives. We came here for a visit, and Jason urged us to come and check it out. My husband got a great job offer and my son got into a great music school and we’re five minutes from the beach. I’m so happy to be here.
Tell me about EVO Athletics and your new role there.
I’m one of the owners, and I specifically run the Women’s Gymnastics Program. I oversee the recreation and preschool, and I work with the boys sometimes in the teen program with Jason (Collins), who oversees the boys’ program. We also do a Ninja Warrior program, cheerleading, and volleyball. Eventually we’re going to bring in other sports. It’s really about providing a wholesome and positive place to raise kids. For me, anybody that works under me and on my staff has to have a similar philosophy. It doesn’t mean that we always have to agree, but ultimately when it comes down to the core of it, it’s about how the children are treated and how we’re treating the parents as clients.
What is your advice to young gymnasts and other athletes with Olympic or professional dreams?
Just make sure that you are loving what you do. Find the joy in it. Not every day is fun, but you still have to love it. Because if you don’t love it, then it’s not worth doing. If you love it, it will carry you forward.
Tell me about your most recent award, being named the U.S. Olympic Coach of the Year, and what that — and awards in general — mean to you?
These awards are cool right now. The U.S. Olympic Coach award is really special. It represents all of the Olympic sports, from both winter and summer, and all the governing bodies. It’s kind of funny, I have these three plaques and I got these three for coach of the year selected by my peers and there is a joke that I got one to represent each one of my children for all the years that I’ve been gone. (Laughs)
What is your favorite way to relax in Sarasota?
It’s the beach and we belong to a boat club, so we enjoy taking a boat out on the water. But my favorite thing, honestly, is just being able to spend more quality time with my family.
Hopefully many years from now, what is the first thing that you hope people mention when they bring up your name?
Oh wow! That I was a good person with a good heart, compassionate and cared about others. I feel like when you are a coach, your job is to give back. If you’re doing it for your own glory, then you are doing it for the wrong reasons.
Finish the following sentences:
When I watched Simone Biles win gold in the Olympics, I…
I was proud. That was the biggest thing. I felt like we had come full circle from where we started. We reached the apex of our journey.
The greatest thing I can do for all my athletes is…
Teach them how to always love what they are doing and teach them that what they do does not define who they are.
A good coach will always… Stands up for their athlete.
The great athlete will always… Be true to who they are.
I’m a good coach because… (Laughs) I don’t have a big ego. I like to stand behind the athletes and let them shine.
The essential quality to be a great champion is…
Dedication and passion.
An Olympic gold medal is… Wow!