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Dan Atkins-Buddy builder

Children's gymnastics coach strengthens more than bodies

Autumn Phillips

Walk into the Steamboat Gymnastics Center and listen. You’ll hear children laughing and calling for “Mr. Dan,” aka Dan Atkins. “The kids love Mr. Dan,” Terry Vande Veld said. “He makes the kids feel good about themselves, and they want to do their best for him.”
Vande Veld has been the office manager at Steamboat Gymnastics for three years, a job she took after bringing her children to gymnastics since they were babies.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” she said. “I work there because I believe in what they are doing.”
Atkins and his wife bought the gymnastic business in 1997. Their son, Dustin, was 3 years old and Atkins’ one goal was to find a job that would allow him to be with his family.
“When I found out the business was for sale, we immediately decided we wanted to buy it,” Atkins said. “It was really a prayer answered.
“When we took over, we knew this would be a great family business for us. We knew we wanted another child, and I wanted to be very involved.”
The Atkinses immediately worked to expand their new business. Enrollment went from 150 students to 350.
Mr. Dan took over the morning classes and his wife, Rose, taught in the afternoons and evenings.
“With that schedule, I could be a daddy,” he said. “That’s still the way it goes. I put dinner on the table five nights a week.”
Atkins gives his wife credit for the great attitude that has made him famous among the younger set.
“Without her, I couldn’t be the same jovial happy guy. I’m fresh because I only have to work five or six hours a day,” he said.
Mr. Dan teaches two levels of gymnastics. The first is Tiny Tots for children 12 months to 3 years old. The program is not structured and parents or nannies attend with their children.
“That’s the rule. Every parent has to work with their child,” Atkins said. “You can’t sit in the bleachers and watch.”
Atkins walks around the gym helping parents to teach their child how to walk on the balance beam, do a front roll or hang from a rope.
“It’s all about getting them to face their little fears,” he said. “It helps if it’s not Mr. Dan asking them to do it, but a parent.”
The program is as much about gymnastics as it is about self-esteem.
“He wants them to have fun and feel good about themselves,” Vande Veld said. “He is proud of the kids who can already do gymnastics, but he finds something good to say about the kid that struggles.”
When a child is too afraid to try something, Mr. Dan simply says, “I want you to do this, but it doesn’t have to be today.”
JoDett Freeman, a kindergarten teacher at the Discovery Learning Center, brings her students to Atkins’ classes all the time.
“The kids get so excited when it’s time to see Mr. Dan,” Freeman said. “He relates to them and they strive to do what he wants them to do. He explains his love for them and they know that. They know he loves them.”
After children graduate from Tiny Tots, they move to the next level, Tumble Tots, for ages 3 to 5.
“We’re not shooting for precision, but it’s time for them to learn listening and memory skills,” Atkins said.
He sets up a complicated obstacle course and asks them to complete it from memory. Parents often balk at the complexity of what he asks of their children, but Atkins refuses to listen when they share their doubts.
“I believe in children,” Atkins said. “I’ve seen a lot of children who have been labeled or who are ADD. I have a big heart for those kids. More than anyone, they need to succeed.”
He takes extra time with those children, because he himself has felt like an underdog at times in his life, he said: “This has become a place where people can bring kids that no one else will take. Everyone knows, Mr. Dan will take your kid. He can handle it.”
Atkins isn’t a world-famous gymnast. He’s an ex-Marine who wanted to build body strength but retain flexibility and found gymnastics. It was 1978 and Atkins had moved to Steamboat after the Marines to be near his sister, Judy Zamora. She no longer lives here, but at the time she ran the gymnastics program for Steamboat Springs Parks and Recreation Department.
Zamora’s husband, Steve, had been a gymnast his whole life and taught Atkins gymnastics as a way of staying in shape.
Atkins, in turn, sees gymnastics as a way to teach small children skills such as sharing. They learn their colors and numbers from Mr. Dan as they learn monkey hangs and how to jump safely on the trampoline.
He teaches through clowning. He lets the kids knock him down to demonstrate the dangers of getting in the way while someone uses the rings. All the kids laugh, but they also understand where not to stand.
“He’s a riot,” Vande Veld said. “And the kids can totally relate.”
He lets kids hang all over him, on his arms and legs, as he walks. He just laughs.
Christina Harvey Skubiz has two five year olds who take gymnastics from Mr. Dan. Like Vande Veld, her children are twins and she watched as her son stayed in the shadows of his more outgoing sister. “He’s smart, but he’s an introspective child,” she said.
Joining gymnastics changed everything for her son.
“Mr. Dan really instilled confidence in my son,” she said. “He joined an all-boys program last summer, and he has thrived in that program. He gained confidence and he gained physical strength. We noticed that right away and we attribute it all to gymnastics.
“My kids talk about Mr. Dan all the time.”