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The high-pitched laughter of children bounces off the walls and tiny gymnasts in leotards run around the padded blue floor as Changamire Anderson II slips on his rubber soled shoes. Anderson’s younger siblings, 11-year-old Amare and 3-year-old Aria, are nearby, climbing over mats, jumping on trampolines, and trying in vain to get the attention of their parents on a noisy Thursday evening in November at the Silver Stars Gymnastics facility in Silver Spring. 

Anderson ignores the commotion around him and starts to jog around, occasionally dodging kids sprinting back from the bathroom to rejoin their class. A while later, a young girl who appears to be no older than 5 bolts across a trampoline, crashes face first into a large red mat, and starts giggling. She does it again. And again. And then once more. 

“I kind of look back and I can see myself as one of those kids,” says Anderson.

That’s because he was. Anderson, who goes by “Changa,” started out in gymnastics the same way the young children around him did, with boundless energy and an inclination to take risks. Now, the 14-year-old D.C. resident and freshman at Washington Latin Public Charter School in Northwest is Silver Stars Gymnastics’ most accomplished gymnast since its inception in 1993, according to the gym’s owner, Cherie Hope

In June, Anderson placed first in the 13-14 age group in both trampoline and double-mini trampoline at the USA Gymnastics Championships in Greensboro, North Carolina. This week, he is in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the World Age Group Competitions, one of the four athletes chosen to represent Team USA in his age group’s double-mini competition. 

“We’ve had high-level gymnasts before, but never at this level,” says Hope. “I mean, like, we’ve had good kids who have been very successful, but this is highest level we’ve ever had.”

***

Angela Anderson had turned on the television and finally begun to relax one evening more than a decade ago, when she heard a loud “boom” from upstairs. She turned to her husband, Changa, and they shared a look of confusion. He had heard it as well. The sound of little feet tapping on the floor above followed. Their baby boy was not even a year old at the time, but had somehow found a way to get out of his crib.

The couple, who met as students at the Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Northwest, decided to install a baby monitor. Baby Changa, Angela soon discovered, was flipping out of the crib.

“It was just so natural,” she says. “I was like, ‘Okay, this kid has to learn how to flip without hurting himself.’”

Their daughter Nia was already a student at Silver Stars Gymnastics, so Angela decided to bring the younger Changa along. She signed up for a “mommy and me” class, but coaches quickly kicked them out. Anderson was far too advanced, they told Angela. By age 4, he was doing back handsprings down the floor, according to Anderson’s coach Juwan Young. When he was 5, he mastered skills that kids years older struggle to learn.

“I was still competing, so I was like, ‘This kid better not be better than me,’” Young says with a laugh. “But when I took over coaching obviously I was like, ‘Okay, I got to fast track him.’ So I started giving him a little bit harder things to do. Everything I threw at him, he was able to conquer it and still ask me for more.”

***

During practice a few days before leaving for Russia, Anderson’s eyes grow wide as he sprints down the blue runway. His arms swing rapidly by his sides. When he reaches the double-mini trampoline, he flips and twists—all while maintaining complete control of his body—in ways that his peers practicing this night can only imagine. Anderson lands to the right center of the mat and grimaces. “Point your toes,” Young reminds him as he steps off the mat. In a double-mini trampoline routine, athletes blast off one trampoline, perform an aerial skill, land on another trampoline, perform another aerial skill, then come back to earth. Points can be deducted based on where a gymnast lands.

“It felt like I wasn’t doing it the right way,” Anderson says later. “I actually get frustrated a lot. I mess up on simple skills. I know I can fix them easily and can do better.”

A nagging hip injury has hobbled Anderson in recent weeks and he has been going to physical therapy sessions in order to ease the pain before his competition this Sunday. But the injury does not compare to two years ago when he got lost in the air during practice and kneed himself in the chin, shattering several teeth and fracturing his jaw. A scar several inches long is still visible on his chin. Anderson took a few days off from practice, but would still go to the USA Gymnastics Championships in Providence, Rhode Island, where he placed third in double-mini.

“You got to be a little wild,” says Young, who is the head coach for the Silver Stars trampoline and tumbling team. “I would say the biggest thing is definitely having that wild side. As long as you’re jumping in the air, you’re trying to defy gravity, you’re trying to flip, sometimes three, sometimes four times before you land back on your feet in a little box.”

Anderson ultimately wants to compete at the Olympics in 2024, when he’ll be old enough to participate. Several nights a week before he goes to bed, he pulls up YouTube videos of Olympic trampolinists and watches their routines for more than an hour. 

His passion for the sport has not waned even as controversies have erupted around his sport and engulfed its embattled governing body. 

Larry Nassar, the former doctor for the U.S. women’s artistic gymnastics team, was sentenced to 60 years in federal prison after pleading guilty to child pornography charges in July 2017, and earlier this year was sentenced to serve an additional 40 to 175 years in Michigan state prison for multiple counts of sexual assault of minors. Last October, authorities charged a Bethesda father with one count of visual surveillance with prurient intent after he placed a hidden camera inside the bathroom of the same Silver Spring facility where Anderson trains four days a week. 

Those incidents, happening in a sport tarnished with negative headlines, have impacted enrollment at Silver Stars, says Hope, the gym’s owner. The organization, which has a second location in Bowie, has “an average of 1,500 kids coming through the doors,” she says, but enrollment has dropped “20 to 25 percent” in the wake of controversies. (Construction of the Purple Line, which rerouted traffic near the Silver Spring gym, has also created challenges, Hope notes.)

Anderson says he has never felt uncomfortable at the gym, and his mother adds that their “great relationship” with Young, her son’s 31-year-old coach, has helped ease any concerns.

“As long as he feels safe and doesn’t feel like there’s anything inappropriate or intimidating or that he can’t communicate with anyone, I’m good,” says Angela.

On a recent Saturday night, just one day ahead of Anderson and Team USA’s flight to Russia, a few dozen friends and family gathered at Silver Stars for a send-off party. Anderson sat quietly near the back of the gym’s party room, eating pizza and cupcakes with a friend. His mother spoke first, followed by well-wishes from his grandparents, his 18-year-old sister Nia, and his father. Anderson got up to thank the small crowd gathered and spoke in a low voice for just a couple of seconds before stepping aside. A few minutes later, he was back on the mat outside the room, doing back handsprings and chasing his little sister. 

He doesn’t mind the attention, he insists, but it can be overwhelming at times. It’s when he’s in the air that Anderson finds his peace—when his head nearly touches the ceiling, when he performs one aerial skill after another with the natural grace of an elite athlete, when nothing else matters except his next jump, twist, or flip. “It feels really relaxing,” he says.