This article was published in the Lenoir News-Topic.

In a Hickory gym where the floor springs and the smells of sweat and chalk swirl together, two Caldwell County gymnasts flip, vault and twirl four nights a week.

The two of them have crossed “go to nationals” off their bucket lists, but “graduate from middle school” – well, that one’s still in progress.

Isaac Bast, 12, a student at William Lenoir Middle School, and Carter Lewis, 12, a student at Hudson Middle, are competitive gymnasts at Foothills Gymnastics in Hickory. Both competed in April at the Men’s Junior Olympic National Championships in Portland, Ore., and Isaac placed fifth on still rings.In separate interviews, both used the same word to explain their love of gymnastics: “challenge.”

“I really enjoy the challenge and being able to use the talent that I’ve been given to have fun, instead of just sitting and not even realizing I have that talent,” said Isaac, who in second grade saw Olympic gymnasts on TV and thought, “I want to do that too.”

Carter, who has been a gymnast since he was 5, said he likes the challenge – and “having the ability to flip around.”

Isaac and Carter are also in agreement on the amount of effort involved in the twisting, gravity-defying machinations that make up a gymnast’s typical day.

It’s harder than it looks, Isaac explained. And it looks simple on purpose – gymnasts are trying to make their routines look “easy and clean.”

“People don’t always realize the strength and dedication it takes,” Carter said, “people who might be, like, ‘Oh, it’s not as hard as football.’”

That last bit was said with a knowing smile, a wry indication that supporting your entire body weight on your hands from a 2-inch bar is, in fact, as hard as football.

The specifics of gymnastics are, Isaac explained, not easy to discuss with the uninitiated – or, as he put it, “My mom says gymnastics is a different language.”

Listening to the two gymnasts talk, that’s obvious. “I did giants off the high bar,” one will say – but what are giants, and what’s a high bar? (Or a low bar, for that matter?)

“I extended up to a handstand,” the other says. And okay, the handstand part is obvious, but how exactly do you extend into one?

It’s better just to watch them. Watch them flipping, vaulting and spinning in the air. Watch them placing their hands on parallel wooden bars and pushing themselves up until they’re vertical and upside-down, all in a few seconds. Watch them shooting into the air from a trampoline.

All of this requires some juggling for two kids still learning algebra. They practice four nights a week. They ride an hour round-trip to get to their gym. They travel for competitions.

But watch them hurtling around, staying steady on bars and rings and in mid-air, and you don’t worry much about their ability to balance.