By Bonnie Adams, Managing Editor
Shrewsbury – Carie Miele has always had a special place in her heart for children with disabilities. She has also loved gymnastics her entire life. As the founder and coach of an adaptive gymnastic team at Gymnastics Learning Center (GLC) in Shrewsbury, she had a unique opportunity to merge those two loves. Recently, she made the decision to step down from the program, after a remarkable 27 year run.
“My mother was very involved in working with kids with disabilities and my aunt was involved in the deaf community,” Miele said. “So I was very exposed to this world.”
As a high school student, she was watching a movie one evening about a child with Down syndrome who worked with a physical therapist. Miele knew then, she said, that was what she wanted to do herself someday.
When she went onto Northeastern University in 1992 to get her degree in physical therapy, there was one problem – she needed to also get some practical experience.
Miele was also a gymnast who had been competing for Gymnastics Learning Center (GLC) in Shrewsbury since she was a young girl.
“I loved it there – it formed a big part of who I am. [Owner] Mariane Frongillo is the most kind, compassionate giving person, just filled with Christian faith,” Miele said.
She decided to ask Frongillo if she could create and coach an adaptive gymnastic team at GLC.
“Without hesitation she said ‘yes,’” Miele recalled.
After Frongillo gave her the go-ahead, Miele started the adaptive team with three gymnasts – Jessica, who was 15, Amy, who was 8, and Lindsey, who was 7. Miele herself was only 19.
All three stayed with the team through the years; in fact, many of the athletes who came in later years also stayed for long tenures.
“Through the 27 years, we have probably have had 75 athletes and over 300 volunteers, many of whom also helped to coach,” Miele said. “I could not have done this program without them. They allowed it to happen.”
As grateful as she is to her volunteers, it is really the athletes themselves that she greatly admires.
“Every single day I have been humbled to work with these athletes, all of whom are facing some type of challenge and many have faced many challenges,” she said. “And gymnastics isn’t easy – and it can be scary! But they have so much courage and love for the sport.”
“And the trust the parents have demonstrated over the years…humbling is the only word for it,” she added. “I really feel I grew up with the team. We developed relationships outside of the gym. They’re family.”
Every time they came to the gym, the young men and women would put aside their challenges and view themselves as true gymnasts, Miele said. Sometimes adaptations would have to be made, but the women did all four disciplines (vault, uneven bars, balance beam, and floor) while the men did all six disciplines (floor, pommel horse, still rings, vault, parallel bars, and horizontal).
Miele also coached a rhythmic gymnastics team as well.
The teams followed Special Olympics rules and several times actually went to compete at National and World Games.
During her time as coach, Miele did go onto become a practicing physical therapist, working with children in early intervention programs. She also married her husband, Eric, a research scientist for Astra Zeneca, and had two children, Victoria, now 13, and Eric Jr., now 12.
Eric was the men’s coach while Victoria was assistant coach for the rhythmic and men’s teams.
“They didn’t have experience coaching or even doing gymnastics but they learned and did a great job!” Miele said.
Stepping down after 27 years was hard, Miele noted, but as her kids get older and busier, she found she needed to be there for them more. Victoria is a choral singer with the Boston Symphony Children’s Choir. Eric is a musician who plays saxophone for his school’s marching band and also plays soccer and wrestles.
Miele said that it is hopeful that a new coaching staff will restart the adaptive program this fall.
“It has really been my honor to work with all of these athletes, coaches and volunteers,” she said. “It’s been my pride and joy.”
photos/courtesy Carie Miele